Dec. 29, 2023

My POV on “Show, Don’t Tell”

My POV on “Show, Don’t Tell”

If I’m in first person mode, like I am right now, the only way I can convey information to you about me is by telling you. Right now, I am telling you what I think, because I can’t exactly show you. The chosen Point of View, or POV, is “first person omniscient,” because I am writing about me and I know everything. Or, everything that matters at this point, which is enough.

I can still show you things about me, even in first person, but it takes work. For example:

                        It isn’t often that I kick a dog or throw rocks at a nun. Last time I
                        did that was when my coffee was served cold. No, wait: it was when
                        the UPS guy drove over the wet cement I’d laid down and Sister
                        Helen came preaching about baptizing my kid. Again. Nailed her
                        in the left knee.

I have conveyed—shown—an impression of me without telling you specifically that I like hot coffee, have the emotional IQ of a toddler, can work with my hands, am likely agnostic/atheist, have a child, and probably lack adult impulse control to the extent that I can’t really remember when I did last fly off the handle. And that I can throw a rock. A lot of information (or pseudo-information) packed into 58 words. The “tell” part has 50, but the 58 are more entertaining. They paint a verbal picture that serves as both hook and energy spurt to move the story forward. Although what kind of story is probably not worth pursuing at the moment

Second-person POV is a writer’s trick that reminds you of using a knife: the sharp one makes everything in the kitchen easy while the dull one is tedious and possibly painful. What I did was show you (and now I’m telling you) how, in the hands of a sharp writer, second-person POV can be great, but in the hands of a dull one, it can be boring/annoying. And I told you in second-person. I pause for the ovation (showing in first-person). You may have my autograph (showing in second-person POV). I will stop now (telling you).

Then there’s third person, the most common POV used because it offers writers the flexibility of jumping in and out of characters to more easily convey emotions and information. But just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s well-handled, or that one has to dive into a person’s head as a cheap way of using tell instead of show. Here’s an example of an incident observed:

                        The ice cream shop at closing time. Geri was slamming freezer
                        lids and cup stacks. Ben moved like a shy Labrador, hunching
                        spasmodically with every slam. Finished, Geri grabbed her
                         purse and yanked the door open.

                        “See you,” said Ben.

                        Geri already had the phone at her ear. “Yeah, it’s me. Did you
                        get my clothes from the cleaners?” Pause. “I’ll go in with you
                        in the morning. Time to move on even if I don’t know what I’ll
                        be doing there.”

                        As she drove by the shop, she saw Ben in the window and
                        flipped him the bird. After several seconds, he flipped it back,
                        looking at the jewelry store receipt and counting how many
                        days he had to get a refund.

The brief scene established tone, mood, emotions by using actions and reactions that seem to imply the potential end of a relationship between Ben and Geri. And if you think I wrote that scene just for the last three words, you know me so well. The POV here is one made by choice, opting to convey information without specific descriptions about mood and emotions. Rather than say “Ben and Geri had a spat and may be breaking up,” the scene puts the reader in the role of interpreter of events, as happens so often in Life.

Think about what kind of person Ben seems to be based on the actions and reactions, and what Geri might be feeling as she walks out and drives away. By showing these details, the reader thus becomes engaged in the story in a way that telling has a harder time achieving.

I hear the doorbell. If it’s Sister Helen, I’ve got a smooth rock with her other knee’s name on it.