Show and Tell                                                             2017.04.17

This is a show and tell about one aspect of writing craft: showing versus telling.

Whether one is better than the other depends on the subject and what a writer wants to accomplish. In Chapter Four of Diary of a Robot the story must continue bringing readers up to speed on the complex but increasingly relevant subject of AI (artificial electronic machine intelligence), without boring them into doing other things.

As you know if you have a review copy, Diary of a Robot has matured as a story just as I have matured as a writer. I'm sure we both have a way to go, although the story's way now takes the form of a sequel. Maturation implies that the growth does not alter the work's genetic make-up. I mean, a Sci-Fi or mystery story does not mature into a romance or historical novel even though there may be historical and romantic things in it. One of my great helpers in that maturing process is the fellow with grey hair on the cover. His name is Greg. He has a Masters in Theater Arts from Kent State University, and we collaborated on various video projects while I was in the early stages of writing this book. Beside teaching me the difference between showing and telling, he taught me a bit of how to read a book to an audience using different voices for different people, and also how to know what to not read while doing that. It's amazing how reading a story to others will sharpen your sense of what to add and what to cut. I still read and re-read the book to him a few chapters at a time, and we discuss things.

But back to writing show and tell: Here is a paragraph from an early review edition:

          Although Guy could have scheduled it himself, he stopped by her desk and asked the Doctor’s secretary, Marie, to schedule the demo for Doc, Bob, Nan, Tim, and their technicians, plus others Dr. Little usually invited. Guy also requested coffee for the meeting. The hidden coffee smell of the CM might give the little coffee trap away unless he unveiled the beast in the presence of another—completely visible—pot of fresh coffee. And he asked her for the room with the best view of the park. It was big enough to hold the eight or a dozen people he expected, and he wanted the park—spare though it was at this time of year—to be the backdrop for the TM unveiling.

That's "telling". I just tell you what happened and maybe a bit about why.  Some months before releasing the current version of the story it became obvious that just having the programmer stop by her desk instead of scheduling things himself is too subtle. Guy and Marie needed a stronger intro to their budding relationship. The best way to do that, I thought, was to turn the "tell" paragraph above into a "show" scene. Here it is:

          Although Guy could have scheduled it himself, he stopped by her desk and asked the Doctor’s secretary to schedule the demo for Doc, Bob, Nan, Tim, and their technicians, plus others Dr. Little usually invited.
          “Hi Marie,” he said, looking at her left eye, and then her right, and then other parts of her face. She was afraid to laugh for fear that he would stop and settle for email.
          “Hello Guy,” she said cheerily, “What do you need?”
          “Coffee,” he said, still scanning her face. The delay was just long enough for her to try not smiling and say, “I don’t have any.”
          “I mean I need coffee for that meeting we’re having tomorrow to show off the new testing machine.”
          He felt the need to add in a hurry: “Bobby might try to needle me and ask if the CM makes coffee. I want to be ready for him. The coffee smell in the CM will give my little coffee trap away unless I unveil the beast in the presence of another—completely visible—pot of fresh coffee.”
          “No problem,” she said, keying notes into a database. “Anything else?”
          “I need the room with the best view of the park.”
          That room was big enough to hold the eight or a dozen people he expected, and he wanted the park—spare though it was at this time of year—to be the backdrop for the TM unveiling.
          “Done,” she said. He stood there for a moment, rubbed his crew cut, smiled sheepishly, and vanished.

Notice that I used the original "tell" as boiler plate text to inform the scene.  Notice also that the "show" is longer. It was enhanced by details I saw when the scene played out in my mind. I didn't tell you they liked each other. I didn't tell you that Guy was shy either. I showed his shyness by where he looked and what he did. I did cheat a little with Marie's reactions by doing both a show and a tell. Sometime it's better to "tell" when "show" will take too long. Or when you want to show, but don't yet know how. Or maybe there is a great risk that the reader will miss the show. On the other hand, a writer has to trust the reader to get it. It's a craft and a judgement call.

It is just as possible to go the other way and turn a show into a tell. This is useful when trying to speed a story along by compressing it at critical points while still keeping the things the reader needs to know. (Try reading the show scene above, and then reading the tell paragraph.)

An extreme example of that compression process is the many paragraphs I had to boil down to get this, the one paragraph following Guy's talk with Marie:

          Well before the appointed meeting time he rolled the Testing Machine—with its hidden Coffee Maker—farther into the meeting room and checked everything, starting at the wall outlet. It always worked better when it was plugged in. This rehearsal concluded with his appreciative imaginary audience giving plaudits for a job and demo well done.

Here was one of those times when it's necessary to turn a show into a tell. That short "tell" paragraph used to be a couple of pages of "show" where Guy got the machine and himself ready for the big demo.

After a while I realized the get-ready scene just slowed the action down. So I kept only its first sentence and its little joke. Then I borrowed just a few more words and phrases, and stuffed them into the last sentence of the new tell so it would lead well into the next scene. Then I checked the stuff I had chopped out to make sure any bits needed later could be saved and put somewhere else.

Much better, I think.



Lewis Jenkins



Diary of a Robot

        Table of Chapters
Chapter 0. Problems
Chapter 1. Headaches
Chapter 2. Happy Holidays
Chapter 3. Mr. Nice Guy
Chapter 4. The Brainless One 
Chapter 5. A Little Crazy
Chapter 6. Grave Consequences
Chapter 7. Core Directives
Chapter 8. Expect Difficulties
Chapter 9. Caveats
Chapter 10. Mister Machine
Chapter 11. Good News, Bad News, El Cheapo
Chapter 12. New Memories
Chapter 13. Little Problems
Chapter 14. Lasers, Language, and Happiness
Chapter 15. Chatterbots
Chapter 16. Ready Or Not
Chapter 17. Not a Turing Test
Chapter 18. Reality Test
Chapter 19. Chess, Anyone?
Chapter 20. FOM
Chapter 21. Chairman of the Board
Chapter 22. The Usual Suspects
Chapter 23. M. God
Chapter 24. Walkabout
Chapter 25. Why
Chapter 26. First Blood
Chapter 27. More Machines?
Chapter 28. POV
Chapter 29. ROI
Chapter 30. Last Blood
Chapter 31. Don’t Want to Talk About It
Chapter 32. Round Table
Chapter 33. A Change of Mind
Chapter 34. Threes
Chapter 35. Knight Moves
Chapter 36. Little Combinations
Chapter 37. Can We Talk?
Chapter 38. Pas de Deux
Chapter 39. The Jig Is Up
Chapter 40. Good, Bad, Ugly                     Chapter 41. Function Goes On

  Lewis and Susan Jenkins