Show, don’t tell
I HATE this advice. I know myself well enough to know that probably means I need to pay attention when people say it about my writing. If you ask me about it, I’ll probably say something like “I’m skeptical; it’s a newfangled notion and I’ve read plenty of books that have stood the test of time while telling mercilessly.”
Honestly, though? I hate this advice because I don’t understand it well enough to heed it.
This blog post is my attempt to come to grips with this confusing notion.
It’s in the prose
Show, don’t tell, isn’t an aspect of the storytelling side of writing. You can have a terrific plot, compelling characters, and a meaningful theme, and still struggle with telling. Show, don’t tell happens in the prose you use to tell the story.
Do you see what I did there? Storytelling. Prose that tells the story. This is probably a big reason I find this concept so vague: it’s a catchy phrase that doesn’t convey enough meaning to be helpful.
Dramatization versus exposition
The fabulously informative K.M. Weiland explains the phrase as code for mastering great narrative and allowing readers to fully inhabit the story. In the old novels I sink into when I have a bad day, I’m observing a character who’s watching something happen; the “show versus tell” goal is for me to watch something happen myself.
Weiland recommends examining every paragraph of your novel for the proper balance of showing, using a list of checkpoints.
- “Telling” verbs
These are verbs that put a layer of distance between the reader and the story. Weiland’s list includes ask, begin, feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, think, touch, and wonder. These words distance the reader because instead of engaging the reader’s own senses, you’re telling them what the narrator is sensing. It’s the difference between “Sally heard a lark singing” and something that describes the plaintive, desperate cry of a lark looking for a mate.
My impression of lark song from a hundred literary references was completely off base. There are no larks where I live, so I looked it up on YouTube to help me write that sentence. From reading all those old “telling” narratives, I imagined a beautiful melody, like the mockingbird outside my house sings. Now I know it’s more of a call, not very musical at all. If the way a lark sounds was important to a plot, I’d never have gotten the point.
2. Dramatize, don’t summarize
You can think of showing as dramatizing, and telling as summarizing. It’s the knife plunging into the victim’s heart versus the assassin killing the victim. Joe Bunting calls this being specific, and he says it’s the secret to showing, not telling. He recommends interrogating your story to reveal the hidden depths, and compares a summary to a closed accordion. The music happens when you pull it open and show the folds.
Don’t try to eliminate all the telling in your novel. You can use it to summarize tedious or extraneous events, remind readers of what they already know, and transition between scenes, times, and settings. Most of your writing should be showing, but there’s a place for telling. As a reader, I’m fine with a summary that says the second week in the new job was just like the first. Writer’s Digest says be brief, and make sure whatever you’re summarizing is really necessary for advancing the plot by developing backstory, establishing mood, or describing the setting. The flip side of adding specificity is that you’re adding length. Don’t bore the reader.
4. Show the one right detail
Find the one thing that will bring the scene to life, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Brandon Sanderson talks about this in his BYU lesson on world building: he says if you go deep on one little thing about your fantasy or science fiction world, it creates the illusion of the iceberg beneath the surface. Weiland says that trying to dramatize everything, so the reader sees exactly what you see in your imagination, doesn’t usually work, and adds unnecessary clutter. Along the same lines, Tom Leveen reminds us that everyone knows what bacon smells like, so you don’t need to waste a paragraph describing it. He says make that one right detail concrete: it’s not the length of the description but the specificity. You can choose to leave other things ambiguous.
The camera trick
The Writer’s Digest recommends Jeff Gerke’s idea from his book The First 50 Pages, to help you identify whether your prose is telling, not showing. Ask yourself, can the camera see it? “It was a peaceful land and the people lived in harmony” is telling because the camera can’t see peace and harmony.
You’ll have to imagine a camera that picks up things from the other senses. Also, interior monologue isn’t telling, even though the camera wouldn’t see it.
Showing better by stirring emotions
Another way to think about it is to say that showing is the ability to stir readers’ emotions, says Abigail Perry on the DIY MFA website. Using the courtroom verdict scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, you can see how three techniques heighten the reader’s connection to the character’s emotions:
- Metaphor and simile
Using vivid images and precise words pulls the reader in better than vague adverbs and adjectives. In Mockingbird, Scout says “I saw the jury return, moving like underwater swimmers.” She could have said “the jury returned, moving slowly” but that wouldn’t have conveyed the agonizing pace. The metaphor also helps to show how Scout is perceiving the moment, in a dreamlike, time-stretched, somber way.
Metaphors and similes make scenes easier to imagine. Watch out for clichés, though – I know the first simile that comes to my mind is usually something that was overused a hundred years ago.
2. Verbs to trigger the senses
Scout notices that Jem’s hands are “white from gripping the rails.” From this image, we know Jem is upset, and we can feel the tension in his body. Atticus “pushes” his papers and “snaps” his briefcase. Using verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs is a stronger, more direct way to describe what and how the character sees, smells, hears, and feels. Tom Leveen says we can use more than 5 senses in our writing. The senses of temperature, pain, balance and acceleration, and where our limbs are in relation to ourselves can all help deepen the reader’s connection to our work.
3. Interweaving dialogue
Dialogue is another way to show a character’s feelings and emotions. There’s not much dialogue in the Mockingbird scene but what little there is pulls us in deeper. Not exactly dialogue, but description of dialogue – “Judge Taylor’s voice came from far away and was tiny” – conveys that same slow-motion unreality as the “underwater swimmers” jury motion. At the end of the scene, as Scout is watching from the balcony as Atticus exits the courtroom, Reverend Sykes says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’…” The short statement conveys the respect the community has for Atticus, and supports the visuals.
How to show in four easy steps
The Daily Writing Tips blog summarizes the concept briefly:
- Use dialogue
- Use sensory language
- Be descriptive (but don’t go so far as to write a “police blotter” description)
- Be specific, not vague
The great lie of writing workshops?
Joshua Henkin has a different perspective on the “show don’t tell” advice. He says there is a kernel of truth in it – fiction is a dramatic art. However, a novel is not a movie. Movies are better at certain things, but they aren’t as good at others as novels are, like conveying what’s going on in the general sense that doesn’t fit into a specific scene, or more importantly, describing internal psychological states. A movie can suggest emotion by dialogue and gesture, or borrow from the novel with a voice-over; a novel can straight-out tell you what the person is feeling.
Henkin says “show don’t tell” can be a lazy way to say something isn’t working in a story, when the teacher and the student need to dig deeper to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it. It’s easier to fiddle with the description so the reader can see the torn vinyl couch than it is to describe internal emotional states without using cheesy clichés. “Show don’t tell” can provide cover for writers who don’t want to do the hardest but most crucial work.
Mostly show but sometimes tell
Hannah Collins neatly straddles both sides of the question with this less catchy but more accurate phrase. She compares writing to music, where composers include silence to give the listener a rest from all the sounds. If you do nothing but show, your writing will be long and exhausting, and some things are better conveyed by simple telling.
Because telling comes naturally to writers, we need to learn to show, which is why the “show don’t tell” advice is so prevalent. Collins recommends practicing by writing a scene in simple “telling” style and then rewriting it to show, sprinkling in more details and context than the straightforward telling conveyed.
Ultimately, knowing when to show and when to tell comes from experience, practice, instinct, and feedback.