Showing vs. telling


...is what I'll be on Tuesday nights after 5/10

In honor of the final few episodes of ABC’s Lost, we’re going to briefly revisit last season’s storyline for help in understanding an oft-discussed issue facing writers of all stripes: showing vs. telling.

How many times and by how many people have you been told to show instead of tell in your writing? More than you can count, and every single time you probably sit there, thoughtfully stroking your chin, nodding knowingly in solemn agreement, while internally you’re saying to yourself, “I thought it was tell, don’t show… isn’t that what he said last time? What’s the difference, anyhow? Not like I’ll ask out loud, because then I’ll have to pry this knowing, solemn expression off my face. Anyway, when I’m writing, aren’t I doing nothing but telling? I mean, it’s not like I’m making a film or a graphic novel…and aren’t rules made to be broken? What is this, anyway, communist China, for crying out loud? Mmmm, Chinese food sounds really good right now…”

I’ve said it myself many, many times. Show, don’t tell. I’ve probably said, “tell, don’t show” a couple of times too. But since you’re sitting there, all alone in your cube reading this, I’m going to explain the difference to you, and nobody ever has to know that you weren’t clear on it. I won’t tell a soul. Swear.

Let’s take an example from a medium that is all about showing rather than telling: television in general and Lost in particular. Not a fan? Bear with me, and all will become clear.

One of the plot cornerstones throughout the show’s five seasons on air is the relationship between Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway). These two have spent the last five years of our lives flirting, fighting, joking, having sex in a cage (that was just once, and it’s not as weird as it sounds…okay, maybe it is, but that’s beside the point I’m trying to make), so we have been shown this relationship. We’ve lived it, and many viewers (females in particular) have rooted for this union to happen. But at the end of last season, Sawyer jumped out of a helicopter that was going to take some of the castaways back to the mainland. So Kate went back to the U.S., and Sawyer was left on the island in a different time period (long story, not germane to our discussion here).

Okay. So.

When this season started, Sawyer and Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) were hanging out, running away from stuff, being thrown through time. Then they ended up in 1974, and this exchange among Juliet, Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sawyer took place:

JIN: Now what?

SAWYER: Now we wait for him (John Locke) to come back.

JULIET: For how long?

SAWYER: [long pause] As long as it takes.

Then, this caption appears on screen:

Three Years Later

Huh? Oh, no, you di’n’t! and then this scene:

Sawyer enters a house where the dining room table is set.

SAWYER: Mmmm. Something smells good.

JULIET: Hey.

[Juliet is cooking in the kitchen. She takes a pot of pasta and drains it in a colander. Sawyer waits and twirls a sunflower in his hand. Juliet stops and looks at him.]

JULIET: Is that for me?

[Sawyer walks over to Juliet and they put their arms around each other.]

SAWYER: You were amazing today.

[As they embrace, Sawyer chuckles.]

JULIET: Thank you for believing in me.

SAWYER: Ah.

[They kiss, chuckle then kiss passionately.]

JULIET: I love you.

SAWYER: Hmm, I love you too.

Wait a minute. Sawyer and Juliet? For five years we’ve watched a relationship build between Sawyer and Kate, during which time the L word was never uttered, and now we’re TOLD it’s three years later and Sawyer and Juliet love each other?

Oh, but wait: it gets better. Ready for some heavy-duty editorializing? Later on in this episode, Sawyer has a conversation with a brand-new character (the bane of the regular Lost viewer, the endless parade of new characters) named Horace, that goes something like this:

HORACE: I know, but it’s only been three years, Jim. Is that really long enough to get over someone?

SAWYER: [pauses] I had a thing for a girl once [pause] and I had a shot at her, but I didn’t take it. After a little while I’d lay in bed every night wondering, was it a mistake? Wondering. I never stop thinking about her. But now I can barely remember what she looks like. And her face is [pause] she’s just gone. And she ain’t never coming back. So [pause] is three years enough to get over someone? Absolutely.

We’re TOLD that Sawyer is over Kate! That he doesn’t even remember what she looks like! For weeks I couldn’t figure out why this whole story arc felt false to me, why it nagged at the edges of my subconscious, and then it hit me. It’s all this telling instead of showing. We’re not invested in the relationship between Sawyer and Juliet because we didn’t get to see it develop. Instead we’re told, “No, really. They totally love each other. It’s been three years. Just trust us.”

Clearly, the writers wanted to throw in a plot twist to ratchet up the tension between Kate and Sawyer when Kate inevitably returned to the island. The problem is that it’s phony, contrived tension. It’s like telling a kid the bogeyman is going to get him if he doesn’t behave, but the kid misbehaves anyway, because he knows the bogeyman isn’t real. When you tell rather than show, you make your reader feel cheated, uninvolved and uninvested in what’s going on.

So from all of us who sat through endless fiction workshops being hammered with show, don’t tell, to the writers of Lost: Thanks.

Sort of.

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