Show don’t tell: breaking it down

Show don’t tell.

Has this piece of advice every driven you mental?  It has me.

On the surface, it sounds so simple, so clean, so self-evident.  Yet, in practice, it can be complicated.

We are, after all, story-tellers.  If we never ‘told’ anything our stories would never get through to the reader.  So the question is not so much whether to tell, but what to tell, when to tell and how to tell.  Each question provides a different slant on that ‘simple’ advice.

In the interests of clarity and brevity, I’m going to tackle these one at a time, starting with ‘how’ to tell.

Anton Chekov famously said (at least, according to the mug I am drinking my coffee from):

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

In this example, ‘show don’t tell’ is about not being pedestrian or clichéd in your writing and engaging the reader by tapping into the poetry in your soul.  But ‘how’ do you do that?

Start by asking yourself why the moon is shining in your scene.  If it’s for atmosphere, what kind of atmosphere? Is it a romantic moonlight? If so, what is romantic about it? Does it reflect in her eyes, making them sparkle?  Does it light only part of his face, tantalizingly revealing half a smile?  Does it coat the dew-wet garden with an otherworldy glow and make your character feel that they are in a dream?

Tell me that.

Or is it a desolate, cold, lonely, cruel and lost moonlight? Because then, you might have it glinting on broken glass. You might have it full and bright as daylight, doing nothing to soften the graffitti-marred walls and broken windows of the squat the character calls home.

Or maybe, the moon shining isn’t about atmosphere at all.  Maybe it’s just a practical consideration.  If your character is a sneak thief, who had planned to make their raid on the castle in the dark of the moon and now has to do it at full moon, the moonlight is a problem to them.  In that case, you might have it illuminating the wide approach road as if it had been lit up for the arrival of the king.

In other words, when you are looking at how to describe an element of a scene, particularly an object or physical condition, remember that the ‘thing’ is NEVER what the scene is about.  A scene is always about EMOTION – because stories are always about emotion.

Tell me (the reader) about the elements of the scene in the way they affect the character.  Tell me, not what you, the writer, know about the scene, but about what the character notices, because they will only notice what is important to them. If your character is in the garden with the love of her life, she doesn’t care about the moon.  She only cares about what she can see of her lover and what it is telling her about his feelings.  If your character is being chased by bad guys, she is not going to notice the moonlight, except insofar as it as helps or hinders her getting away.

Once you have really put yourself in the scene and are seeing it through the character’s eyes, you can TELL me what you see, because what you see (as the character) will SHOW me (the reader) what is going on emotionally for the character, and that is what I want to know.

Clear?  Crystal?  As mud?

What do you think?

I’d really like to get some feedback on this, because I do think it can be a very difficult piece of advice, especially when it is offered as a simple one.   Just trying to tease it out enough to be meaningful without going on and on was hard.  I plan to continue next week, so all contributions gratefully received!

Happy Monday!


29 thoughts on “Show don’t tell: breaking it down

  1. Yes, it’s really good advice for beginning writers who may want to narrate the entire story in a Morgan Freedman sort of voice, but then again, sometimes a story demands narration. It just depends on the story you’re trying to tell. It will indeed invoke more emotion and interest, but you must pick and choose where to direct emotion. If you want to say, he walked to his mailbox, you don’t necessarily HAVE to say “His feet ached from walking to the mailbox” because it doesn’t matter. Not that it doesn’t help show the physicality of walking, but it is pointless to write unless the character will be soon chased by a chainsaw-wielding monster and the fact his feet hurt matters.

    • Yes, indeedy, Derek, and this is precisely why this advice is tricky. I’m going to get to the emotion bit in the next post, because that is exactly the problem you run into next when trying to break this down. You start focussing on emtion and you run the risk of doing a Marvin the paranoid android and commenting on how depressed the doors make you! I think that will come out in the ‘what to tell’ and ‘when to tell’ bits.

      You’re absolutely right. Sometimes a mailbox is just a mailbox! Thanks for contributing!

  2. Very well put, Imelda, clarifying an often-difficult question. I’m up to my ears in “show, don’t tell” right now, because I’m writing a romantic movie script and everything must be shown through the actions of a character or the reactions of another. I miss having the option of delving into a character’s thoughts so we know why the moonlight is bugging the heck out of them. But can only *show* what’s going on by how she behaves and/or what she says. Good discipline for when I write the “book of the movie” I guess.

    • Lordy, Valerie, after all those novels, that must be tricky, sometimes! Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, I do appreciate it. I can’t wait to see your movie!

  3. it is about creating a picture, or an image to ‘show’ the readers what the character is seeing and going through, while evoking the same emotions he/she felt?

    • Yes, I think so. The aim is not to tell the reader what the character is feeling, but to make the reader feel it. The idea is if you give the reader the emotional input that the character has, you won’t need to tell them what to feel, because they will already ‘be there’. I think this is the heart of ‘show, don’t tell’. I’m going to talk specifically about emotion next week, but I wanted to tackle this quote first, as it is so often used and I wanted to try to unravel what he was getting at!

  4. Nice entry with some great advice. I like to work a rhythm between showing and telling. Show, show, show… and then speed up the action for a while by telling – then back to show to make sure the reader stays involved. Also, I think dialog is a way of telling by showing.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks for the comment, Bill. Absolutely, there has to be a balance between showing and telling. I’m going to try to work some more direct examples in next Monday, because the more I think about this, the more I think that it is a little like character and plot – they’re just two ways of looking at the same thing. And I may need to do a whole separate piece on dialogue, which isn’t in my notes but should be!

    • Well, of course you understand it, Dean, you’re a poet! But it can be tricky when you are trying to do it while also holding together your complicated thriller plot. If you don’t have the poetic turn of mind, some instructions come in handy! Always nice to see you.

  5. Aaahhhh yest the walnut that is Show, Don’t tell. I too have taken to the odd crawl up the wall in the hopes of cracking it’s shell. From what I can gather to show is to connect to the reader, to tell is to disconnect. Be in on the scene, the action, the emotions of the character and therefore your reader will… I think… at least that is what I try to do. Great post Imelda.

    • Yes, that’s exactly it, isn’t it, Gabrielle. They say, show, connect, evoke. And you nod sagely and say, ‘of course, yes’. Until you come to try to do it and start tearing your hair out! Just working out what to put in this post was like pulling wisdom teeth. But it’s useful for me to do, and if it helps anyone else, I’m delighted. Thanks for coming by and joining the discussion, Gabrielle. It’s lovely to ‘meet’ you!

  6. A fascinating post, addressing a very interesting question. It seems to me that ‘show don’t tell’ is a very sound piece of advice but I don’t think writers should get hung up on it. There are no rules in writing, nor should there be. Every writer should tell their story in the way that feels right for them. Some writing is a lot more visual and tactile than others, but not necessarily better. Writers often overdo it. Plus, a contrast beween very visual passages and ones which are more ‘telling’ can vary pace and provide texture. It depends, also, on the type of story and the narrative technique. If it’s first person narration by a central character then there is likely to be far more ‘telling’ than if there’s third person narration. ‘Remains of the Day’ for instance, and ‘Never Let me Go’ both have first person narration and a lot of telling, but they’re still great books.

    • Yes, indeedy, Peter. The balance that is right depends a lot on the style of the author and of the character. A well-brought up woman in a Regency Romance is not going to have the same way of seeing as, say, a hard-bitten Lee Child hero. Therefore, they are going to have to be dealt with differently in prose. Thank you for bringing that up, because now I know what to tackle next. I think this will take at least four posts now!

      In this case, I was talking about connecting with the poetic because the image in the Chekov quote is poetic in style and it is often used to illustrate ‘show don’t tell’. But it is only part of the way that maxim can be interpreted and it has to be separated from the other ways, or the whole thing gets horribly complicated.

      With a little luck, it will become clear in time! Thanks for contributing. It is vital to remember that all writing advice is JUST advice, not hard and fast rules that should be adhered to at the expense of your own style.

  7. Eliot calls this the “objective correlative” in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems.” Using a “code” of language that points at an overall feeling (like how we all associate blue or rain with sadness, etc.). Good post!

    • Okay, you know I have to go and read the essay now, don’t you? Curses on you, student girl! Dragging me back into phrases like ‘objective correlative’! 😉

      But you make a good point here. Certain objects do bring associations and they can be powerful assistants in creating mood and evoking emotion, if we use them mindfully and in a fresh, rather than a cliched way.

      Thanks for coming by!

  8. I loved the examples you used. I have fought with the the telly vs showy for some time and never had such a great example presented to me. Thank you. I’m bookmarking this page.

    • Thanks! I’m really glad it was helpful. I’ll be continuing the subject next Monday and probably for a few posts after that, so come back and see if the rest helps! Lovely to see you, as always.

  9. I think you’ve done a great job illustrating the concept. Like you said, it’s one of those things that makes sense until you try to do it. But the Chekov quote, especially, sums it up. I’ll have to commit it to memory.

  10. This is great, Imelda. Concise and easy to understand. I am going to bookmark this to keep me on track with descriptions. Thanks

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