Don’t “Show” or “Tell”

I attempted to free my writing self by “channeling” advice on how to improve. Specifically, I asked my muse(s) about the concept of “show, not tell.” This is what I got.

Would you mind very much if what we show you becomes the basis for twenty-first century writing?

I didn’t think so. Here it goes: don’t show or tell; experience and share. Be there, look around, consider the surroundings, and then describe to the reader that which you think they need to know to understand your story. If you are walking through the forest, do not blindly describe it. Consider why you are there, and for heaven’s sake, why you are dragging the poor reader with you. Only once you know the answer to that question will you be understand what to “share” and why. If the MC protagonist (use the proper terms, William; do not take short cuts) is on a spiritual journey, then describe the forest in a way that the reader likewise experiences his or her emotional epiphany. If she is a detective seeking clues for a murder then describe her awareness of small details. Mirror what she would focus on. Perhaps a bird’s call distracts her. Perhaps it pulls her out of a reverie and onto what she needed to pay attention to.

In these instances, the reader isn’t your slave, blindly listening as you blather on about things that didn’t matter. Instead, make your reader the protagonist. Pull them so deeply into the story that they fear they might be the detective themselves. In other words, don’t show, be.

Anton Chekhov

By the way, not only did Anton Chekhov not say “show, don’t tell,” he also did not say, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” What he actually said was more poetic and instructive:

“In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”

– Anton Chekhov, in a letter to his brother

Now, this neither advocates “show” nor dismisses “tell.” Rather, it merely provides an excellent example of how to help the reader create visual imagery. It is Chekhov’s way of showing one how to show.

As a writer, I cite and embrace two accomplished writers’ takes on show versus tell: Ernest Hemingway and Orson Scott Card.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was well-known as being “pro-show,” so to speak, but if we examine one of his more profound quotes, it’s not so simple. In the 1932 tome, Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway wrote,

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 1932

On its surface, that sounds like he’s saying that not only should a writer show, but ell (s/he) should simplify as well. Dizzy Gillespie, jazz trumpeter, said it best, “It took all my life to learn what not to play.” Dizzy and Hemingway are advocating leaving space for the aficionado to become part of the piece. Allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Don’t show everything you know, instead, give enough information that the reader understands what you mean without unneeded words. This sounds profound, but they are actually just applying the rules of poetry to prose or music.

Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card took it a step further. Card likened novel-writing to a playwright’s work, understanding that there are, by necessity, more scenes in a novel than in a play. Those scenes that are vital to the story should be dramatized via showing. Those events that would normally be between a play’s scenes should be told. Simply put, showing takes a lot of time and considerable effort. Don’t add word count for unimportant events. Show what is important; tell what is not.

Putting Card’s advocacy (and mine) along with Chekov, Hemingway, and Gillespie, you thus have instruction not only in when to show and when to tell, but how to show as well. Not only should one limit showing–writing in expressive, emotive detail–only to the parts of stories that need to be dramatized, one should only show within those parts that which is important to provide that sense of being in the story that Chekhov describes to his brother.

To return to Chekhov’s example, allow the reader to experience the forest if that experience will be important to the story, to the writer’s desire to connect with the reader, or to ell’s (her or his) wish to place the reader in a certain frame of mind. If the trek in the forest is merely backdrop to an important scene, hint at details in the forest–the glint of sunlight flashing in a fetid pool, the aroma of dying pine needles–but focus your and the readers’ attention on the drama taking place there. In short, show what is important, tell what is not.

A final thought to consider: while writers have been advocating some form of show, not tell for a century, it was never intended to become a formula via which the author pens a story. Neither did it consider that readers might not have the same cultural references as the author, an important factor in understanding the cues given when one is supposedly showing a story. As author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in a New York Times op ed, immigrant authors, for instance, might describe emotions differently from their readers, mandating the need for some measure of telling, by way of explanation.

Similarly, when I describe a character in my Aligned Worlds science fiction universe, I cannot simple rely on a poetic narrative structure. Unless you’ve read a previous book, you will have no frame of reference as to a Cetusians’ versus a Farrans’ emotional context, so I must both show and tell. Think of a newcomer to the Star Wars universe. A Sith Lord walks in. You can provide cues via others’ quivering reactions to him, but you might still need to slip in a few lines of explanatory dialogue or narrative.

I have begun to embrace my muse’s idea: be the character; live the event. It is storytelling, and there are infinite ways to tell every story. It doesn’t matter what details you embrace. What matters is that you carry your reader on the trek with you, so that they may live your story as well.

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