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!