Show vs. Tell (one example)

By Kyle Nelson
Based on "Otherside (remix)" by Macklemore (feat. Fences)

Otherside Remix ft. Fences by Macklemore on Grooveshark

Show vs. Tell
You'll hear teachers and writing "experts" say that you need to show and not tell. This is generally true, but sometimes telling is just as effective as showing. The advantage of showing is that it allows a reader to see what you're talking about instead of just telling them. The disadvantage is that it takes more time (and words) to show someone. Some of the most boring passages in books are when writers try to show what the setting looks like. Sometimes I just want a writer to say "It was a cold day" so we can move on to the more important parts of the story (like how the characters feel).

I see a lot of high school writers who merely tell the reader something when it wouldn't be difficult to show them instead. For example: Lone Peak students are mean. Instead, if a writer gave examples of how mean students are (bullying, insults, Tweets, etc.), it would be more powerful to a reader. Either way, the reader comes to the same conclusion (Lone Peak students are mean).

How to show: 
  • dialogue is a great way to show your reader something. Instead of telling us that your grandpa is grumpy, show him in action...yelling at the neighbor kids for looking at his lawn.
  • metaphors will help your reader see what you mean. Instead of telling us that your mother-in-law is evil, describe her as a snake, sneaking around behind your back, talking trash.
You want an example? Here's one:

Read the lyrics to the Macklemore song and listen to it. The first verse mostly shows and the second verse mostly tells.

Otherside (first verse) - mostly SHOW
I think it's clear that Macklemore is trying to say that drugs are bad (especially cough syrup). But instead of just telling us that drugs are bad and addictive and dangerous, he shows us. He goes right into a story of how innocently it started. Then, because of how addictive it is, things get worse. Taking us through the journey of the addiction (and eventually the death) shows us the danger instead of just telling us about it.

SHOW Examples:
  • "That's the same stuff Weezy sippin' huh?" (instead of "a lot of people use drugs because they hear about rappers using them")
  • "he took a sip" (instead of "it starts small")
  •  "every blunt was accompanied by the pink stuff" (instead of "people combine drugs, which often can make things worse")
  • "he loved that feeling" "medicine alleviate the sickness" (instead of "there are many reasons why people become addicted")
  • "wake up, cold sweat, scratchin', itchin', trying to escape the skin that barely fit him" (instead of "drugs are addictive and users can go through withdrawals")
  • "his eyelids closed shut, sat back in the chair...girlfriend shook him, but he never got up" (instead of "drugs can kill you")
Otherside (second verse) - mostly TELL

The first verse just told the story of the young man who got hooked on cough syrup and died. Now Macklemore is giving his opinion.

TELL Examples:
  • "he just wanted to act like them"
  • "us as rappers underestimate the power and the effects we have on these kids"
  • "syrup, percocet, and an eighth a day will leave you broke, depressed, and emotionally vacant" (although the description is specific, and that's better than saying "drugs are bad")
  • "it's not conducive to being creative" (he then shows us by saying that after he sips the cough syrup he passes out or plays playstation, instead of making music)
  •  "we sell our dreams and our potential to escape through that buzz" (this line is one of my favorites, and it's an example of telling...although he showed us in the first verse)
The chorus is a great example of using a metaphor (and imagery) to show your reader what you're trying to say. A sinking boat, wanting to sail away, and a heavy sky are all more powerful than just saying that drugs are bad and will not make you happy.

This isn't an exact science, but it's good to be aware of what impact you might have on your reader.