writing advice: sentence-level perspective & navigating the Show-Tell divide


right now i’m working on a lesson plan on narration for my CW class and i thought i’d share a portion of what i’m planning to go over with my students.

one of the the biggest overall weaknesses i see in writing happens at the sentence level, as in, i see many writers struggle putting “strong” sentences onto the page. conversely, the sentence-level advice i’ve seen that tries to counteract this weakness is often prescriptive. that is to say, it tells you what you should and shouldn’t do without any regard to context. 

one such prescriptive piece of advice is Show Don’t Tell. for the uninitiated, Show Don’t Tell means that you should render an experience on the page rather than explain it. Show Don’t Tell is perceived as a dichotomy: you’re either showing, or you’re telling. Showing is always good and Telling is always bad. Showing is strong, Telling is weak.

but that’s not true on any level. first, there are many circumstances where you could choose to Tell and it is absolutely the right choice for the sentence. conversely, sometimes Showing is exhausting and potentially boring to read, and negates important internality (and voice!) of your narrator. i recently had a student who used Show to such a degree that i never had any idea what was actually happening, because he never Told a single detail, even to provide necessary information for the events that were happening. his writing was overall very strong, but i was lost. i told him it felt a little like walking into a grocery store without a cart, and having to balance all these items, these Show details, with nothing to put them in. you need Tell (a cart) just as much as you need Show (stuff to put in it).

second, Show Don’t Tell is a spectrum entirely reliant on perspective, which is where we get into the very difficult art of crafting a single sentence.

i was working on a story earlier today that i’m writing in very close third person. that means my POV character is She and the reader has complete access to the thoughts and feelings of her environment. i came to an emotional high point between two characters, and wrote this sentence:

She can feel his heart pounding under her palm.

i erased it. i invoked a few prescriptive Rules i’d learned: Show Don’t Tell; Active > Passive Verbs; and When the Action is Hot, Write Cool. all of these come down to the same thing: in high-stake moments, create a wider distance between the reader and narrator. step further outside the mind rather than closer to it. 

so i typed:

His heart pounds under her palm.

both of these sentences are solidly on the Show end of the Show-Tell divide, and in fact traditional writing advice would dictate that by all means, the second sentence is “stronger” than the first. but i disagree.

before i get into why, let’s take a step further back. let’s say i wanted to move closer to Tell. i have a lot of options. there are so many reasons someone’s heart might be pounding, and someone might have their hand against that heart. to Tell is to strip the reader of their interpretation. on one hand, as a writer sliding back and forth on the Show-Tell divide, you might not want any room for interpretation, and therefore the potential for misinterpretation. on the other hand, maybe you’ve developed the context of the moment so thoroughly that you’re comfortable allowing the reader their interpretation, and you’re confident it will reflect your intention for the scene.

in this case, i’ll whittle it down to the exact meaning of the sentence:

He’s nervous.

there are a few reasons i wouldn’t choose this sentence over one of the above. first, it doesn’t reflect the point of view. we have no idea who the narrator of this sentence is, and more importantly, we have no idea how she knows this information. does she think it? is it mere speculation, or is she absolutely certain? if the latter, what’s happening, or what is he doing, to convince her of it?

so, we’ll nix that sentence and move a little further down the divide. 

She can tell he’s nervous.

now we have a little more context. we are solidly in the mind of one person, she, and we know that because she is having a thought/feeling. despite all writing tips and tricks you’ve ever read that tell you this is a “weak” sentence (because it Tells), i have no problems with it. i think it’s a fine sentence. here’s why:

  • it possesses internal voice and implies speculation and unreliability.
  • it has a conflict in it, which is to say it is a sentence that establishes a status quo and upends that which it establishes. the status quo is non-nervousness, non-speculation. we’re upending it by introducing nervousness and the speculation thereof. it innately encourages us to move to the next sentence.
  • sometimes there are no physical cues to Show nervousness. sometimes you can just feel it. maybe my narrator is highly intuitive. maybe she’s so close to him she just knows when he’s nervous. or maybe she’s completely wrong.

or it could be that after this sentence i’ll clarify what that looks like. maybe i’ll combine Tell and Show together so the reader has both a cart and a few items to put in it. 

She can tell he’s nervous. He fidgets and plucks at a hangnail. 

in a different scene, i would have nothing against opting for this Tell sentence and its corresponding Show detail. but in the scene i’m writing, where he is not actually fidgeting and plucking at a hangnail, i want to push further down to Show.

here was the sentence at my cursor:

His heart pounds under her palm.

by all means it’s a decent sentence. it implies POV, though a little ambiguously, because it’s her palm and she is actively feeling his heart beneath it. it has a visual, active verb: Pound. not Flutters. not Beats Steadily. not Thrums. you can see this happening, her hand on his chest, feeling his heartbeat. it possesses conflict: the word Pounds establishes the status quo (a normal hearbeat) and up-ends it (now his heart is beating faster). 

the focus of this sentence, though, is not on her. it’s on him. context, voice, and POV all play a major role in deciding which sentence to choose. if i wanted a greater, more objective distance between my reader and our narrator

(or in this case Writing Cool if we’re going by Gwartney’s Action Hot, Write Cool rule), and a closer distance between my reader and the action of the present moment itself, i would choose this sentence. 

but i don’t want that. i erased the sentence above and went back to my original.

She can feel his heart pounding under her palm.

the emphasis of this sentence is no longer on him, nor the action of his heart. it’s on her, and the fact that she can feel it. i’m choosing to keep us closer to the narrator’s perspective and further from the action. i’ve decided that it’s more important to wrap the action of this moment up in her perspective – to put this detail in a cart, if you will. i’ve chosen the weaker sentence in order to convey narration, to keep us close to the mind rather than the body, to show this action through a window rather than straight-on. 

none of these sentences are, by themselves, better or worse, stronger or weaker, than others. these sentences illustrate a choice you the writer have to make over and over again, sentence by sentence, in order to support and develop the voice, tone, and conflicts you’ve established, regardless of the prescriptive advice you might believe.

writing advice tag | ko-fi 

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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