Monday, September 3, 2012

People Watching and Show vs Tell

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Just before school started I took advantage of a not-too-hot day and took the kids to the park. Apparently lots of other parents had the same idea because it was crowww-ded!

As I was watching my kids run around, I noticed a couple standing off to the side watching two little boys play. One reason I noticed this couple is because each had an arm around the other’s waist. It was sweet. As I continued to watch my kids, however, I noticed that this couple didn’t move- in fact, they bordered on being stiff. Suddenly it occurred to me that this was probably a new relationship. I remember that feeling- that slightly awkward initial phase of affection where you’re so anxious that you don’t realize you haven’t moved a muscle in 10 minutes. I smiled when I noticed the woman pull away for a second, stretch her arms (during which time I confirmed that neither of them was wearing a wedding ring), and then put her arm right back around her boyfriend’s waist once more.

I kept my eye on this couple to see if I could figure out which one the boys belonged to. I suspected they belonged to the guy, because otherwise the woman would have been more interactive with them- moms are like that. I suspect even more so if the mom is trying to incorporate a new man into her sons’ lives, wanting to be an enthusiastic buffer for the transition. Dads, on the other hand, are often more aloof and hesitant with kids, and I imagine that they too might be even more so in a situation like this (single guys have a tendency to be more interested in women than kids...funny how that works).

Soon, one of the boys ran over to the man and said something, casting a sideways glance at the woman. When I heard the other boy call out, “Dad, watch this!” it confirmed my suspicions- the man was the boys’ father, and judging from the body language I’d witnessed, this was probably a meet-the-new-girlfriend outing.

As you can probably guess, I like people-watching. I like to be a detective and study nonverbal communication (and verbal communication) and see what I can figure out about people. After this experience, I realized that people-watching can actually make me a better writer.

One of the things I sometimes struggle with as a writer is the difference between “telling” and “showing”. People-watching is a great example of how we can learn information with no “telling” whatsoever. I didn’t have a narrator who walked over to me and said, “That’s Tom. He’s here with his boys and his new girlfriend. He’s really hoping today goes well.” Instead, I had a scene in front of me with visual evidence that intrigued me to figure out that information on my own.

I think that the reason that “showing” is so much better than “telling” is because it makes the reading experience more lifelike for the reader. It puts the reader in the scene as an observer and gives them the tools they need to understand the situation. Granted, the degree to which you are doing either ’telling’ or ’showing’ also depends on your POV (point of view).

So, for example, instead of saying, “The exasperated and exhausted mother picked up her screaming child and left the park,” (telling), you could write, “The sweaty mother clenched her jaw and roughly picked up her screaming child as she stomped out of the park.” (showing) I didn’t have to use the words, “exasperated and exhausted” because a reader can deduce that from the physical description offered instead. The next time you find yourself using too many “telling” words, stop and ask yourself, “If someone asked me to describe what tired (or overwhelmed, or excited, or furious, etc.) looked like, how would I describe it?"

If you’re at all like me (and we’re all writers here, so you probably are) you often keep a running narrative in your head of your life as you live it. Your brain automatically inserts things like, “...he replied, smiling,” after your husband answers a question you just asked him. (Admit it. You totally do this.) So, the next time you’re out people-watching and running your narrative, practice your ’showing’ skills in your head. Describe only what you see, not the conclusions you are drawing from what you see.

Later, as I watched the couple leave with the boys, I tested my detective skills once more- I suspected they would probably leave in a smaller, 4-door car, not a minivan or SUV (he had to buy a cheapy after the divorce- it was all he could afford). They walked toward an older model Honda Civic (the couple holding hands, one little boy holding his dad’s hand and the other running ahead) and I smiled. I really hope it all worked out for them.

Have you ever struggled with the concept of showing vs. telling? 

(And does anyone else out there like to people-watch? Or narrate their lives in their head as if they were a character in a novel?)


  1. Great example! I love this explanation for show vs. tell.

  2. My husband is a big people watcher and he's totally converted me to it! We frequently try to figure out the story behind certain people we see. It's a great way to come up with characters and stories!



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