By Jack L. Pyke
When most think of bastards in fiction, none come closer to Bill Sikes, the thief who beat Nancy to death, and the bane of Oliver’s miserable existence in the Dickens’ classic: Oliver Twist. When we meet Sikes, even hiss dress code sets the tone for who this man is, as he comes full-on with:
“…a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings which enclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves—the kind of legs, which in such costume, always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck: with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke.” (Dickens, 1838)
Give a reader the name Bill Sikes, and a sure bet is that they’ll give a wince followed by, “The bastard.”
They’ve taken all the images Dickens gave them, applied it to how it affects them on a personal level, plus added their own understanding of modern-day bastards, and come to the conclusion: “Yeah, he’s a real bastard.”
This reader interactivity is the essence of show and tell: getting the reader to interact with the words and easily process the images a writer gives them. Yet switch it around, show and tell itself still remains one of the most obscure and hard to grasp tools for a writer.
They’re left asking: What’s show, but mostly: when is it good to tell? In most ways, it comes down to the simple level of Bill Sikes (Show) versus the bastard (tell).
Unlike the reader who has been given a stock of images to reach the conclusion “he’s a bastard,” the writer is first given two abstract concepts to work with: Show and Tell.
These two words fall into the category of abstract language, or certain key word choices that aren’t easy to picture for the author. So authors are being asked to work backwards with “show and tell” and piece together all the imagery themselves. And it’s this abstract word choice that adds to this one, most possibly outdated classifications in fiction: show and tell
Breaking Down the Show and Tell Template
“Bastard” itself is an abstract word. Give a reader the description “he’s a bastard,” and they’ll probably give you a wry smile and say: “Whatever… prove it.” Which is where the classic show v tell saying comes from: Don’t tell me he’s a bastard—show me the man giving the mother a child’s scarf as a Mother’s Day gift just after he’s strangled her kid with it.
The images aren’t pretty, but what the writer is doing is taking an image the reader can’t easily picture: ‘bastard’, and replacing it with words that a reader can relate to outside of the pages: they can easily picture a mother, a scarf, Mother’s Day, kid, and being strangled. And this shows how word-choice level can be just the beginning of understanding what makes up the whole show and tell template.
Where Show and Tell Starts: Basic Word Choice
Abstract v Concrete Language
As with choices between “bastard” and “Sikes”, this is where show and tell starts: the individual word that’s chosen and just how long it takes for a reader/writer to process that image. Abstract language is anything that doesn’t give an immediate picture in the reader’s mind. For instance, beautiful v table. The latter (table) is instantly recognisable to both reader and writer because they’ve both come across various tables in their lives. The former (beautiful) is somewhat harder to picture for both, as what’s beautiful to the writer won’t be what’s beautiful to the reader. The abstract gap ideally needs to be bridged, where exchanging an abstract word for a concrete image can help the reader connect to the given images. Think of the following concrete language choices: Ikea furniture. Mother. Chocolate. They’re items most readers are familiar with in their daily lives. How could an author use those to portray “beauty” through the main character’s eyes and then go on to characterise them?
It’s not a very fair test really as all three have already been used to help portray character and plot before: Ikea furniture (Fight Club), Mother (Psycho) Chocolate (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
The screenplay authors to these movies all chose everyday words and associations that the reader could take from their own context, for the writer to then apply those everyday images to extraordinary fictional contexts, and then create original story and characters. All done through the characters eyes. No elaborate style with extended vocabulary is needed; a skilled writer just knows how to use the everyday words that instantly connect with the everyday lives of readers, or that they can easily visualise.
Just be wary of some concrete nouns, however, as sometimes concrete word choices can also err more towards a telling narrative. E.g., a reader can easily visualise the word “room”. But it isn’t until the head noun is expanded upon does the imagery become more common place to a reader: the living room, bathroom, kitchen, lounge, If the writer is constantly using “He entered the room,” then it has the potential to push the reader away from the imagery, as they can’t easily visualise ‘room’ too clearly. And that’s the core of show and tell at word-choice level: how easy it is for the reader to see and experience the imagery.
Moving beyond Word Choice
Once the impact over concrete/abstract word choice is pinpointed, how a sentence is constructed can be investigated to see what else isn’t easily visualised for the reader.
Take “He is a bastard.” Within Oliver Twist, the reader is given a stack of images to work with and is allowed to reach the conclusion: He’s a bastard, and how they do it is by interacting with the words, stacking all the above images into their thought process, and summarising their feelings into a single sentence.
The problem can arise if that one summarised sentence is given to the reader first, with no supporting evidence. The reader isn’t allowed to piece together the images and reach the conclusion themselves. A writer can tell a reader that his main character is a bastard as often as he likes, but chances are it will bore the reader and they’ll lose interest. And this is where the main concept for show and tell comes in: Don’t tell me he’s a writer, show me him preparing dinner in the kitchen, notepad close by, and how every now and again he’ll risk burning spuds and house to get a stray piece of dialogue written down.
Within the show and tell template, however, it shows that it isn’t only choice over concrete nouns that make it hard for the reader to picture the imagery. Something is happening with the verb choice and how that verb helps form sentence meaning (semantics).
Subject, Verb, Open Season on Madness
Broken down into sentence roles, “He is a bastard” is classified into the following roles:
He (subject) is (verb) a (indefinite article) bastard (head noun / object).
Yet on a semantic level, what the verb itself is doing here is introducing a relationship between the subject and object. In this case, ‘is’ relates a state of being (bastard) back to the subject (he), hence why: he is a bastard.
But where the above “tells” a reader about a state of being, it’s not “showing” how that state of being is made or reached. And that obscure imagery at word level now shifts into the verb and across the whole sentence, making it hard for the reader to conclude how he became a bastard.
Verbs that act to relate a state of being between subject and object etc, are usually variants of the copula ‘be’: in other words: is, are, am, were, was: He was beautiful, he is a bastard, etc. As with making a choice between abstract v concrete word choice, it’s hard to picture verbs such as “was”, “were”, “am”, and “is”, so the likes of he’s a bastard become hard to visualise for a reader. To shift from the hard to picture verb, more visual verb-choices can be brought into play to help shift into “showing” territory:
For example, instead of “He’s a bastard”, consider stacking more concrete images and exchanging verb choice:
He handed the mother a child’s scarf. Blood spotted the bright yellow softness, each drop smaller or larger than the last, but marking the Pudsey Bear faces and sending out a very twisted version of Children in Need. “Happy Mother’s Day, love,” he whispered in her ear.
Again the imagery is hard on the reader, but for reader interaction, the removal of the state of being (bastard) and verb choice (is, was, am) is vital for playing on reader emotion and getting them to not only draw the images together and conclude for themselves that he’s not a nice man—but to also possibly hate the man in the process and empathise more with the mother.
Widening the Show and Tell Template: Paragraph level
As with “show” and how images are stacked together in paragraphs to help build the picture, the same happens with “tell,” but it can have the opposite effect on the reader, where hard to picture imagery is stacked on top of harder to picture imagery. If a paragraph is offered where each clause has a repetitive pattern of “He was this… he was that…” there’s a strong chance that the story is relying on relational processes (Halliday, 1985) to tell a story: “he was beautiful.” This is where the danger can come, that the reader is being spoon-fed detail that they can’t interact with on a visual level. Summarising the likes of state of being can run across sentences, into whole stretches of paragraphs, where line after line of summary runs the risk of losing the reader. If the main character isn’t seen to act too often within the narrative and between the dialogue, there’s no defining visual “incidents” that help the reader see how character and world is building, and how that character then lives and breathes within that world, and who is then ultimately defined by that world.
Stretching the Show and Tell template: Stating the Obvious
Another part of show and tell focuses on how sometimes an author will state the obvious for the reader. Sentences like “He saw this, he heard that, she felt this…” will be established. Once point of view is known, and the reader is aware of who is narrating the story, details like he saw, felt, heard etc can be dropped from the text. For example, one suggested edit for “He felt the cold of the blade burn through his skin,” could be:
The cold of the blade burned through his skin.
The technique is known as “filtering”, and what filtering does is remove the subject “He” and the verb “saw” and gives a clear focus on what’s being heard, felt, saw, over who’s actually hearing, feeling, seeing. Again clarity with writing and images becomes the key by filtering out any unnecessary repetitive material. The reader knows who POV it is, so “he saw” etc becomes almost tautological and superfluous material in places. The same tautological effect can also come into expressing dialogue.
Dialogue Attribute: More Tell than Show
With show and tell and stating the obvious, speech tags are a prime abuser of telling. Some authors forget that speech marks and other punctuation already show dialogue is taking place, so repeating the likes of “he said” brings in its own repetition. Simply by using action, the speaker can be clarified without relying on speech tags so heavily. E.g., instead of “Come here,” said James, crooking his finger and throwing in a cocky smile, by using filtering, all the repetition over telling the reader who speaks is lost and focus given on the imagery:
“Come here.” James crooked a finger and threw in a cocky smile.
That’s in no way saying all speech tags can be deleted, but just like with any other show and tell tool, choosing where to use them should act to do something, either to focus on a new speaker or change the tone of the sentence. “He whispered” is very different from “he said.”
And that leaves behind one question: when should you show? When should you tell?
The Importance of Show and Tell
This has to be the favourite and probably the most frustrating part for writers. The knowledge is there on how to show, how to tell, but when exactly should you make a choice between the two, and why?