Writers Tip of the Day: Show, Don’t Tell … Is Stupid

show-and-tell

We’ve all heard it: writers should “show,” not “tell.” By that, the common wisdom, espoused to novelists and poets alike, means that writers should reveal a scene by allowing it to play out, not by passively sitting back and describing it. Let’s look at one example.

First, let’s tell.

Jake was heartbroken watching Ann as she stood in front of the window. She was tense and distracted. It was a goodbye, Jake knew, and though he thought her lovelier than ever before, he was powerless to stop her leaving.

Now, let’s show.

Ann paced across the wooden floor to the window and back, her bare feet softly slapping against the floor boards. The noise startled Jake, who’d been watching her for some time, afraid to interrupt. She stopped, finally, in front of the open window, her white gown ballooning with the breeze like the billows of a sail. She was, in fact, sailing, flying from him as he sank into the couch, drowning. The sun outlined her naked skin beneath the gown, and he remembered every form, every touch, every moan, none of which he’d ever experience again.

Okay, I’m not in a poetic mood, and both passages suck a few eggs, but you get the point, no? In the first passage, we are told what Ann feels and how Jake responds. In the second, we watch her movements and figure out her mood on our own. We aren’t told directly what Jake feels, but are given enough information to figure it out ourselves.

Sounds good, right? Well, it is, assuming the little scene above with Ann and Jake is important to your story. But what if it isn’t? What if all we needed to know from the scene is that “Jake still loved Ann, still found her alluring, but to no avail. She’d moved on.” I’ve just “told” you the same thing, and sped the reader along to more important parts of the story in the process. See, Show, Don’t Tell (SDT), is only applicable for the important bits. The problem with the first example isn’t “telling,” it’s that we are told poorly.

More to the point, it’s more a poetry rule than a storytelling one. We are story tellers, not story showers. Know why? Books are not movies. We don’t need (or want) the viewer to see every part of the story. Your story will drag and readers will lose interest. I’m reminded of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I loved, to a point. That point was when the author saw fit to show me every freaking object in the room in vivid detail, instead of just telling me the room was cluttered. None of the details were relevant to the story, but he showed them nonetheless. At the end, I enjoyed the book, though I skipped pages upon pages of pointless descriptors.

“But Bill,” you say, “all my writing teachers say Show, Don’t Tell.”

Mine did too. That’s why I dropped out of their classes. See, my friends, it turns out your 1st grade teacher had it right. The correct rule is Show and Tell.

Here’s what Joshua Henkin, writing for Writer’s Digest, had to say on the subject:

A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from, and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time (everything in a movie, by contrast, takes place in specific time, because all there is in a movie is scene—there’s no room for summary, at least as we traditionally conceive of it). But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction). To put it more succinctly, fiction can give us thought: It can tell. And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?

I promise you, if you try to show everything, you will find your story balloons out of control. Rather than SDT, a better rule would be, “Don’t be Lazy.” Describe what needs to be described. Tell what cannot be seen or heard. When you choose to tell, tell it vividly and interestingly. Avoid lazy descriptors like “pretty,” since what you think is pretty may be considered skinny or funny looking by a reader. Don’t tell me your lead is a Native American girl. That offers almost no help in knowing her appearance, her personality, or even her background. Conversely, don’t send me through a scene showing her family life when I can get the same information by your describing the family dynamic and how it’s important to the story.

Remember, whether you are penning a novel or a haiku, the writer’s job is to place the reader in the story and keep her there. You do that by writing well. And that leads me to what I’ve learned is the real reason people tell you to SDT. It’s DAMNED HARD to tell a story well. Telling in way that people want to read takes skill.

Try this as an exercise. Write a story — any subject — from a 1st-person Point of View, wherein the narrator is telling the reader of an event or events that happened. Don’t resort to showing everything, just allow yourself to tell the story without using cliches or maudlin language. I bet you’ll find it’s hard to do. But when you’re done, I bet you’re a better writer than when you started.

As Joshua Henkin wrote, “You will never be told you’re cheesy if you describe a couch, but you might very well be told you’re cheesy if you try to describe loneliness.” See, telling us how a lonely woman feels is hard. You have to walk the fine line between making the reader caring about her loneliness and thinking you’re just trying to be emotionally manipulative. Too many writers take the easy way out and simply describe the character’s empty life, or her solitary walks in the park, never putting us deeply inside her head.

Let’s go back to Ann and Jake, and try telling their story better.

Jake’s head swirled with visions of Ann, the way her white sundress billowed in the spring breeze or how the sun flirted with her, daring to expose her tanned flesh beneath her dress. But he was drowning without her, could no longer remember how to swim alone when she’d for so long been his life raft. But she was leaving now, and her tense posture told him there would be no reasoning her out of it.

Show AND Tell. It’s not just for school kids anymore.

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16 Replies to “Writers Tip of the Day: Show, Don’t Tell … Is Stupid”

  1. Thank you so much for this. I have read so many books that went on and on with the description of a hallway. There’s only so much that can be said about a hallway, and this on, although in a house, seemed like it was twenty miles long–UGG! I tried finishing that book and couldn’t. Great Post!

    1. Thanks! What makes it worse is that there’s a whole generation of writers who are doing this because they were taught it’s good. Even a TV show isn’t going to show you the long hallway all the time.

      1. Yeah. Victoria also had a good article on abandoning established writing rules to develop our own writing styles. I’m glad I found both of your posts on the same day. 🙂

  2. I just realised how it is I have never enjoyed books that much?
    Maybe the few I did pick up, were the ones where this over descriptive narrative applied?
    I am getting hooked on reading short stories Bill. That for me, is quite an achievement! Thank you for your motivation and skill.

    1. Bob, that is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. I’m glad you are enjoying reading more. My ex loved books, but she would still skip over all the narratives. I try to keep her in mind when I write.

      1. It’s true though Bill. I simply have a limited attention span for books. BUT so far so good…I am becoming an avid follower my friend. AND I am learning into the bargain

  3. This is great Bill. I have heard the SDT thing, I don’t know how many times. While writing scifi, I run into into this issue a lot. I feel “background” is important to show why a character is acting the wat he/she acts, but “showing” all that would an entire novel. I like providing a synopsis, but still get dinged for it. by critiquers. This is something I needed to hear from somebody. Thank you.

    1. My pleasure. I’ve heard it in critique circles too. I think people are following Stephen King’s advice, without realizing that’s why his novels used to bloat to 1,000 pages. I finally stopped going to critique circles, because they all said exactly the same things and none of them could write very well.

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