Show vs. Tell & Intensity Scales

tumblweed.jpgHey there you literary lead slingers!  I’ve seen more posts on showing versus telling on WordPress than there are tumbleweeds blowing across the dusty plains.  That’s a good thing!  I was going to list a bunch of references (as usual), but I found an exceptional WordPress heroine who has already done that!

I encourage you to swing over to The Sentranced Writer and check out this post.  Allison (whose first name I’m using like we are best friends even though I just found her blog 10 minutes ago), took the time to compile ten brilliant resources for understanding showing versus telling.  Awesome sauce!

I also wanted to offer my two cents on the concept and provide an interesting tool I’ve found regarding show versus tell (after all, I have to at least write SOMETHING for it to be a daily blog post).

Before I wrote this post I snagged some of my books to refresh the concept.  Nearly every book I own on the craft of writing has a chapter dedicated to this idea.  That tells us something about the importance of it right there.

Before we dive into the topic, check out the video below from one of my favorite movies, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly circa 1966.  Seriously, if there is one soundtrack noise I’ve repeated more than any other in my life, it’s the one from this movie.

No Video.jpgIf I wasn’t so terrified of copyright infringement, I would have placed the fifty-five second clip here.  It includes the “bad” guy’s monologue and Tuco’s classic retort…

“When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk,” said Tuco.  *Corey makes whistling noise*

Tuco is teaching us a valuable storytelling lesson and also about showing versus telling.  Now that you have observed this clip with your eyeballs (assuming you watched the video), let’s consider something.  What would be the best way to share the scene you just saw?

You could say, “Show someone the video clip.” I would agree with you.  For most of us, sight is our primary sense.  This movie clip shows us a scene because we are literally looking right at it with our peepers.  We are experiencing it as the characters experience it.  This is showing.

Now if you watched this scene and walked into a different room of your house and tried to explain what you saw, you are telling.  You would likely say stuff like, “Imagine you are in an old western town.  There is a guy walking into an old saloon and he doesn’t have a right arm…,” and on you would go.  You are attempting to tell the story from an outside perspective.

show versus tell.jpgWhen using the power of literary telepathy on your readers, you need to decide whether you want them to experience the scene as your characters do (show them), or if you want to pull back and explain the scene to them (tell them).  It’s important to realize both of these are essential tools and both of them have a place.

Most sources will jump up and down and blather, “Showing is the bee’s knees!”  I agree with this sentiment.  It is indeed the bee’s knees.  However, if all you do is “show” in your novel.  It will be hundreds of thousands of words long.  Compare the length of the following:

Telling:  “The morning alarm began droning.  Corey’s hand exploded from under the blankets and destroyed the threat with a quick thud.”

Showing:  “His ears throbbed at the sudden explosion of noise.  It sounded like the Imperial March from Star Wars.  It was the Imperial March.  Morning had come and brought cell phone alarms with it.  The blankets cradled his body and the pillow had wrapped itself around his neck massaging him.  The soft warmth of the bed begged him not to leave.  But the Imperial March continued, only louder.  The sharp coolness of the air assaulted his bare arm as it left the relative safety of the…”  And on and on we go.  If every single character action and interaction is revealed in this showing manner, you’re going to have one gargantuan book.

Here’s one solution I’ve found to help you navigate whether to show or tell from scene to scene.  I pulled this specific idea from Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, but I’ve seen similar descriptions in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Stein on Writing.   Bell offered a chart similar to the one below; mine is prettier.

Show vs. Tell Scale.jpg

While I don’t prescribe to a one-size-fits-all style of shaping scenes, this is useful idea to play with.  If the scene is just starting and there is little intensity, it would fall into the “telling” area.  Just go ahead and summarize it with a visceral line or two and get the scene moving.  As the scene progresses and gains in intensity you should start moving towards “showing.”  This reserves those longer bits of exposition for parts and pieces the reader will likely care about most (more intense action involving characters).

Of course now we fall into the, “QE how do I successfully rate intensity from 0-10?” problem area.  I’m not sure.  I thought about that when I was reading it in the different books.  The answer is probably different for each author.  We each likely have our own intensity scale we would apply.

Like I said, this may not be useful to everyone.  As with most tools I acquire and share, I encourage you to use them or shelf them for later (just don’t throw them away).

communicationThat’s it for today!  I know some of my readers also blog about writing.  If you wrote a post on showing versus telling feel free to drop it in the comment box for others to navigate to.  I’ll even make a reference section at the end of my article for people to stumble onto your work.  Sharing is caring!

[Contribution Update]

Thomas Weaver, over at North of Andover, wrote a solid post covering this topic.  As always, his posts are highly entertaining and packed with great information.  I highly recommend giving it a read.  Click here and be teleported!

[End of Update]

question-markAs always, I’m curious about your own processes.  How do you decide when to show and tell?  Is it completely organic (it just kind of happens)?  Or do you have a methodology you apply?  What do you think of a scaling system like I recreated from Bell’s book?  I’d love to hear about it.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

46 responses

  1. Hi QE,
    I’ve never thought about intensity when showing, not telling, but it makes sense. I usually go by my own gut feeling. ‘What would I be like in that situation’ kind of thing. I wonder if there are people who go about it more systematically…

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for reading today and leaving your process! It’s interesting to me because it seems the gut feeling is the prevailing means of deciding. I’m the same when I write but more cognizant when I revise (or befit other people’s work).

      I am also curious to see if there are some wiz bang tricks people use!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. It’s so funny. I went onto Allison’s blog and her latest entry is about beta readers! I just posted a blog entry about beta reading! So funny.

    Nice post and it is an important one.

    Hmm, well my novella is about a blind girl so I had to switch from showing to telling which was hard because I realized that that I like ‘showing’ mainly due to exploration of the language and if I could make scenes like movies in readers heads. So, from this experience, I would really like to say that it depends on the characters and what type of point of view it is.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I appreciate you letting me link your content. The list is solid and I can see some people are already checking it out. I was going to compile a little list myself, but you had already chopped that dragon’s head off.

      The chart wasn’t my idea so the credit definitely goes to James Bell. I did steal his idea and recreate it though. *evil laughter*

      It seems to me, and the comments are kind of confirming it, most writers don’t really put much thought toward showing versus telling. This also is the prevailing input I get from clients and friends I edit for as well (there are some exceptions). I’m not saying writers don’t care; I’m just saying it doesn’t appear to be a factor when they actually craft scenes.

      Just more information to tuck into my editing and writing toolbox.

      Thanks again for letting me share your content and for stopping in to leave some thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In trying to strike the right balance, I often find myself doing both at the same time…. Yet another place where I hang my head in shame and say “Thank ye oh kind and benevolent writing deity, for thine gift of thine editors in my time of need.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think any writer really masters this during the process of writing. As we write we assign different values based upon our chunked view of the book. Given that we often write in chunks, it’s easy for us to get lost in a scene. When this happens we can under or overvalue the scene. When this happens we tend to show or tell as we think is appropriate.

      But when we come back through with fresh eyes (after we left the book to sit for a bit) some important scenes feel hollow and some non-essential scenes are overly flowery and drawn out. We have shaken off the deceptive dust of our chunked view and are looking at the book from a wider viewpoint.

      What I like about knowing this information is that it assists the writer in self-correcting the ship before it crashes into the rocks (or in your case, into a meteor or planetary rim). Just more toys to play with!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you!! I tend to write chronologically to help keep the plot in mind… and then error on the side of having to fluff it out in post. That is easier for me than having to cut back because I fall in love with some of my sentences.

        Liked by 1 person

      • My current story happens chronologically, but in the context of their world this is something that happened long ago. This made some aspects slightly challenging. I can’t understand how some writers are able to jump around in timelines and make it work. I’m jealous of that ability. Maybe someday!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s pretty organic for me. I just write how I see things. I just see when scenes should be elaborately shown and when they should be succinct. Although much of the way I see things is quite vivid, kind of like watching movies…though more often like I’m living it myself.

    That is how vivid it is. I kind of forget everything around me. I’m poorly explaining it and the intensity of it all but I think you get an idea with what you’ve read of my blog.

    My whole point is it is very organic. I love the article. I look forward to Wastelander Wednesday (is that starting tomorrow?)! Have a great day! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • What I just wrote to JR kind is exactly what I would say to you as well (at the risk of sounding like a lazy bum). While I absolutely believe in the power of organic storytelling, it means more things must be really looked at in revision. The power of the moment sometimes (not always) can come at the expense of the bigger picture.

      Do I think this is a bad thing? Absolutely not. Whatever allows a writer to quickly crush their manuscript and transcribe their story is what I recommend. It just means we need to take some time in revision to hit some marks.

      On the other hand if you were calculated, analytical, and measured with your writing (not-organic) we would have other revision issues to attend to. Every style of writing is a perfect style if it empowers the writer to create. As writers and editors (even self-editors) we need to be aware of what each style offers in the way of strength and weakness so we can address those issues after the work is finished.

      And yes! Tomorrow is the first Wasteland Wednesday. You’ll get a sneak peak at the next step in the cover art (my artist met another milestone). You’ll also learn a little about the books protagonist. I’m excited to share it all 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the insight. I agree, I have found you def need to double check your work (almost immediately when writing organically). I have found many a time (most notably with straight up fiction, but also with poetry) that you will find mistakes in pacing, or even spelling etc.

        Most of that come from being wrapped up in the event as it unfolds and writing it that way. I liken it to eye witness accounts of a crime often being the least reliable. It is because they are caught up in that very moment, or even the shock of what they witnessed or what happened. Their mind is in a haze and quite often they couldn’t give an accurate description of an assailant even if they had just robbed them at gun point, in broad daylight, with no attempt at hiding their identity.

        Thus writing in the moment (organically) can lead to errors in many ways. Still, it is how I write. Much the same reasons I don’t plan out most things. I write in the moment. It is how I have always written. You are right though, you def have to double check not only the grammar and spelling, punctuation errors etc. You also need to check the way the story is being told and maybe add or deduct before publishing.

        I’m stoked to hear about tomorrow! I look forward to this new, weekly look into the world of your book (creation and all). So excited! Thanks for sharing your insights. You def don’t seem a lazy bum to me. Heck, to post daily, especially the lengths of the posts you do quite often, takes a ton of effort. That isn’t even saying anything about raising Thor and everything else you have going on.

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

      • I really enjoyed this glimpse into your process. I seem to glide in and out of this style of writing. Sometimes it’s very organic, but on those days when it’s work I tend to become very analytical and calculated. I write faster when inspired, but the extra revision time seems to make up for those whopping word counts.

        Your description of witnessing crime made so much sense given your style of poetry! While I’m sure you can write in many genres, the door in your mind that opens up into the darkness seems to be well greased. Thanks for taking the time to share your process! It always interests me to see how other artists create.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I quite enjoy seeing others processes too. It is always a fun thing to do. Seeing what makes other artists tic, or how they create that which they make.

        Yeah, being analytical definitely helps on the revision front. You have to be when you look over your work again be it immediately or if writing a novel I suppose in a month and half or 3. Xp Fresh eyes always help things.

        As far as the darker writing goes, darkness in many ways, has always been my home. It has also made that much more thankful for every day I live and for those in my life. Also for the blessing of being able to share poetry with you lovely souls!

        I must go in about 6 minutes to work. It’s the long day too, so I will talk again later and look forward to your latest post!

        Cheers! ^_^

        Liked by 1 person

      • It unfortunately has been a stressful day. I’ll be out for the night. I’ll be back tomorrow evening. Wasn’t work, just apartment stuff (not neighbors shockingly either).

        Just a lot going on with trying to move and waiting for word etc.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry about the stress inducing madness of your day. Hopefully by the time you read this things will have turned around for the better. Or at least moved a few inches towards it.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No worries, and thanks for the patience. Sorry I couldn’t read “Wasteland Wednesday” yesterday. It was highly entertaining by the way!

        It took some quick thinking (way more than I would have liked) but we’ve averted crisis for a few days yet. We now have time to prepare things properly. I about flipped out on someone but we came to a mutual agreement. This is good because I came awfully close to throwing the book of Law at someone’s face (metaphorically speaking of course).

        I digress…

        We have moved a few inches towards the better (though still a tad stressed, today has been better thus far) or potentially towards impending doom? Which is it? Who knows?! Find out Tuesday on SinisterDarkSouls Sinisterly Twisted Life of Crazy! Xp

        I have a morbid sense of humor, but I’m sure things will work out. Just a lot to do in a short time. Hopefully we will be able to move out of here soon (pending someone else moving from the place we are waiting to get into).

        Anyways, thank you again and also for entertaining me with Wasteland Wednesday and inspiring me with your post today, on Conflict.

        Cheers! ^_^


  5. This is a subject I’ve been discussing in my posts a lot lately. Showing is very important. Someone proofing my book just told me that she had to set it down because she was so drawn in and cried. Showing definitely has greater power over telling.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve always seen show vs tell to have more to do with emotions. Tell – “He was mad” Show – “HIs fact contorted into a riotous frown as he balled up his fist and glared at the man who refused to acknowledge his presence.”

    Description should always include as many visceral senses as possible. But the show vs tell area has always been more about conveying feeling and action to me.

    Your comment on intensity is key though. The more intense you want something, the more visceral it should feel. Details play a big key in that. This is a great tool to help writers look for ways to expand their ability. It touches on a very needed aspect of storytelling. Things like this are what make the reader feel like they’re in your world.

    Thanks for the info bullet. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean up this floor. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would agree that show and tell has a large role in emotions, but it also has a place in other areas. Like you said, it can be used in basic action. Most commonly telling is used for speeding readers through transitions (no need to show every step, sign, or stoplight). I like that you included visceral elements in your comment, I couldn’t agree more. I’m not sure I even mentioned that, but those sensory inputs are vital to the showing process.

      Thanks for taking the time to write this awesome comment Matt. You rock!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Aha! I have done what you did and promised to return to comment when I wasn’t super tired.
    I’ve never consciously been aware of show vs tell in my own writing. I do love a good visceral scene though, so would probably put myself in a more showy side of things.
    Another great post. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Big heart for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. More love and a chuckle for this line, “…Allison (whose first name I’m using like we are best friends even though I just found her blog 10 minutes ago)…”

    I’m currently having a sleepless night over a single, three-word sentence, “He smiled indulgently,” because I’m paralyzed by show vs tell. But…really…what? I’m leaving my mf’ing adverb because it works magic for me, and “showing” this single, brief smile would be bonkers. He’s galloping right into his dialogue without twitching another muscle. In my further defense, this story is in 1st person, and my MC is not so dense she can’t sense a bit of indulgence without accompanying calisthenics.

    I like your graph. Makes perfect sense to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • First person writing is a challenge. My current book is in 1st. And when the entire book is a character telling you what is happening, blending in showing elements is a tricky.

      I wouldn’t stress those adverbs. They get a bad name, but that’s mainly because some people use them in excess and other complain about it at excess.

      Best of luck in your work and thanks for taking the time to read and leave some thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh goodness. This old problem. It’s everywhere. In good writing and bad writing, in novice and experienced. Heck! It’s even in my writing, but accepting it and recognizing it are the best ways to fix it. One trick I read about was using the five senses. When you analyze what the character is seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and feeling, you have a better chance of showing the scene versus telling.

    However, that doesn’t impact backstory sections. Those… are a bit more difficult and I’m still plodding my way through them. What’s more, I’m trying to plod through them without having one character explain everything to another. (That’s one of the most boring ways to show backstory, but also the most used, in my opinion. *sigh*) Here’s to attempting to write good. :p

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love writing high-intensity scenes when the p.o.v. character is just barely absorbing everything happening around them. I tend to have my characters reflect on what occurred after the fact, which honestly is how I think most of us process chaotic or action-packed circumstances.

    And you’re right, ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ seems to be one of the few golden rules of good writing. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel like I’m going to enjoy reading your book someday!

      Thanks for taking the time to read and share your way of thinking. It always helps me when I learn how others are applying techniques in their own craft.

      Liked by 1 person

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