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Witty Wordsmith: Show and Tell

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

One of the most famous openings in English-language literature, Charles Dickens’ classic is quoted by Admiral James T. Kirk after receiving the book as a gift from Captain Spock.

Beyond being a famous quote, this opening passage of a Tale of Two Cities is a noteworthy example of masterful telling, not showing.  But wait… isn’t that the other way around?  We’re all aware of the rule ‘show, don’t tell’ so have we been wrong all along?  Well, yes… and no.

The rule ‘show, don’t tell’ is a critical piece of advice for a writer who is on their journey towards improving their craft.  It’s a reminder for us to progress past the most rudimentary stages of writing.  When you are a child you first learn the beginning art of storytelling by telling other people – often your parents – what happened.  Children need to learn how to tell stories, whether they are factual or fabricated, as one of the basic building blocks of communication.  They start with the act of telling because it is the most straightforward and clear means of getting a point across.  “He took my toy, so I hit him!” is both trying to get your parents to understand your point of view and a very simple story.  These are the building blocks that we start with when we start fiction writing.

So when we start our first fiction writing adventures we start with the foundation that we’ve practiced as children.  It’s completely natural for us to start telling the reader exactly what is going on – this is also straightforward and efficient.  Sometimes, even when you are a practiced writer, you will need to tell your readers what is going on.  This is especially true in a collaborative role-playing game where experienced players may need to clarify a scene for newer players.

But as you progress you want to move past basic telling and start showing the audience what is going on.  Showing them a piece of dramatic action by describing how the shuttle narrowly veers away from an oncoming asteroid, the whole hull shuddering as bits of rocks and frozen ice skim across the shields causing an electric crackle and the control panel to flare up with red alerts can help to draw the reader in and experience the actions in a satisfying way.  The dialogue in our sims is also part of showing as we hear each response of an important exchange.

Mixing and matching telling and showing will help you pace your stories and sims.  Tell your fellow players about the long arduous walk to get to the archaeological dig site, but start showing them the interesting dialogue and action once everyone arrives at the site.  Tell the crew about the long conversation you had with one of the Admiralty, summarizing the important points and then start showing when you open up the discussion in the sim where they can interact and decide what to do next.  Telling is an important part in simming because it lets us as players focus on the interesting, dramatic parts of our character’s lives while still quickly touching base with the mundane things they do.

Taking this one step further, once you have mastered basic telling and you have mastered showing, then it’s time to go back to telling.  And at this point telling brings the value of omniscient narration: adding fourth-wall breaking exposition to connect with your audience, mining the thoughts from your character’s heads and putting them on the page and letting your readers get an intimate view of what you find meaningful in the story.  This is where you can go beyond scene and setting and tell the reader about atmosphere, attitude or even the themes of the story.  At this point telling is the powerful addition of your voice as an artist layered on top of the basic telling for clarity and the showing you have already mastered.

Basic telling would look something like this:

Captain Kerk was mad.  He didn’t like Klingons because Klingons killed his son.  As soon as the Klingons walked into the room he was angry and didn’t want to talk to them.  Spokk told him he had to be nice and diplomatic, but Kerk didn’t like that at all.

The good thing is this clearly communicates what is going on, but it also doesn’t engage the audience as much as it could.  Adding showing helps to draw the audience in:

Captain Kerk felt heat well up in his cheeks and his heart raced as soon as the Klingons walked through the door.  The lead Klingon was a broad-shouldered military officer with a sneer on his face.  Kerk bit his lower lip to stop himself from returning the sneer and turned towards his First officer Spokk

Kerk: ::Whispering:: I don’t want to do this.

Spokk: ::Calmly, perking a very Vulcan brow:: You have to, Gym.  We agreed to these important diplomatic talks.  Thousands of lives are on the line.

Kerk: I know.  ::He grimaced:: But I don’t have to like it…

In this example, we see how our sim dialogue format plays into the showing.  We get more of a sense for how Kerk is reacting and what he is feeling, and we can follow the conversation he has with Spokk, rather than just being told what is happening.  But let’s take it one step farther and add more telling back in:

Captain Kerk felt heat well up in his cheeks and his heart raced as soon as the Klingons walked through the door.  The lead Klingon was a broad-shouldered military officer with a sneer on his face.  That face, so close to the monster on Planet Genesis who killed his son.  That face that haunted his dreams.  Even though, academically, Kerk knew this was a different Klingon; in his mind they were all the same.  Kerk bit his lower lip to stop himself from returning the sneer and turned towards his First officer Spokk

Kerk: ::Whispering:: I don’t want to do this.

He really did not want to do this.  He could have given Spokk a laundry list of reasons why from the fact that he felt he would say something offensive and jeopardize the negotiations, to the fact that he would rather be fighting than talking.  But Starfleet had pinned the rank on him and therefore he needed to follow through.

Spokk: ::Calmly, perking a very Vulcan brow:: You have to, Gym.  We agreed to these important diplomatic talks.  Thousands of lives are on the line.

Kerk: I know.  ::He grimaced:: But I don’t have to like it…

When you write don’t be afraid to use your skills of both showing and telling.  As you practice you will find the perfect balance between the two for your writing style.  Adding in some omniscient telling compliments the showing for a one-two punch that can really move your writing to the next level!

 

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