Creative Combat Arms: Show vs Tell

Ok, so this is by far the biggest, most talked about rule of writing.  Show don’t tell.  Don’t you do it.  Telling’s for snitches and snitches get stitches.  But seriously, what do I think of this sanctimonious, nigh unbreakable rule? 

Break the bitch.

Every writer tells.  We have to.  That doesn’t mean stop showing and tell it all.  I’m saying that the simplistic rule of “show don’t tell” doesn’t adequately describe what people are really telling the aspiring writer.  The rule should be:

Know what to show.  Know what to tell.  Show more than tell as a general practice.

Because you almost always see writing advice come down with a heavy-handed “Don’t tell.  Show show show,” writer’s trying to get their weight up have stopped telling altogether and are showing, and in some cases they’re showing a lot more than they need to show.

Here’s what all show looks like:

*
“You’re gonna marry my brother,” Clyde said as he looked down his nose at his hostage.

“Clyde, dude, I’m straight,” Melvin replied.  He was tied to a folding chair that offered zero ergonomic support, looking up into Clyde’s flaring nostrils… the same nose that Clyde was looking down from.

Clyde clenched his fists and swung his right at Melvin’s face.  Melvin tried to duck the punch but being tied to a folding chair limited his maneuverability.  Clyde’s right hook hit him in the jaw.  Melvin yelled as pain mushroomed out.  He looked through teary eyes to see Clyde’s left hook coming for him.  He ducked down, but not enough, and Clyde’s fist hit him on the side of his head.  It hurt, but Melvin barely felt it compared to the pain in his jaw, which was still sending shockwaves of torment through his nervous system.  Melvin looked up to see Clyde’s right arm cock back before it descended straight toward his eye…
*

Now I can keep going, line by painful line, but I hope by now you get the point.  The first two paragraphs use show effectively, but that third one is a sit in detention minus the Breakfast Club.  Most of us already know how a beat down goes, so unless Clyde’s gonna grow candy corn out of his knuckles or get creative, cut to the chase already.  There’s a reason why Hollywood worked over scenes are usually brief.   Besides, the real action of the story is the whole brother-marriage thing and while the beat down was a necessary step in the escalating action, it’s not the main attraction… all this show of secondary action is slowing down the primary action.  Ask yourself, you wanna hear more about Melvin getting knocked around or do you wanna find out what’s going on with the brother-marriage thing?

Thought so.  Let’s look at it again, this time with show AND tell working together:

*
“You’re gonna marry my brother,” Clyde said as he looked down his nose at his hostage.

“Clyde, dude, I’m straight,” Melvin replied.  He was tied to a folding chair that offered zero ergonomic support, looking up into Clyde’s flaring nostrils… the same nose that Clyde was looking down from.

Clyde’s first punch let Melvin know to talk to the hand.  And the second punch told Melvin that it was a three party dialogue between left fist, right fist and Melvin’s face.  Melvin’s face didn’t do much talking outside of anguished yells; left and right had a lot to say.

“You look beat the hell up,” Clyde said as he stepped back, wiping the blood from his knuckles onto his shirt.  “And that’s no way for a bride to look.  But I can make it worse, believe that.”

“Aggh, really?” Melvin asked with a groan as he spit out a bloody tooth, his face throbbing and bruised in a dozen places.  “I don’t see how you can make it any worse, this chair is killing me!”
*
Paragraph three’s still tell.  I got more story building and action accomplished with half the sentences.  And I could have just said “Clyde worked Melvin over”, but where’s the fun in that?  Sometimes you gotta tell, but when those times happen, tell it with style.  If you do, then it almost disappears as a tell.  And that’s when you’ve made magic.

I’m including a simple guide of when to do tell vs show.  If you’re ever in doubt, do a functions check, soldier. 

Some of you may be saying “Mr. Semi-pro, Mr. Semi-pro, what about Melvin and the bromance?  What happens?” 

Feel free to add to it via comment boys and gals.  Let’s see if we can build this story together.

 Show vs Tell

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