Show don’t tell: breaking it down, Part II

Last Monday, I started exploring the concept of ‘show don’t tell’.

Starting from a base of Chekov’s ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,’ I broke down HOW to talk about the elements of a scene, tapping into your inner poet to make the details interesting. (The post is here, if you want to read it.)

The comments (and by the way, thank you everyone who commented!) showed just how tricky this subject can be by throwing up excellent points about narrative style (not everyone is poetic, at least to the naked eye) and the advisability of mixing telling with showing to move the story along.  You can read them here, but in response, and to further the breakdown, I would like to talk this week about WHAT to tell.

I said that a scene is never really about the ‘things’ in the scene, but about the EMOTION experienced by the characters.  I will stick by this, but if you aren’t careful, thinking this way can cause two problems.

The first is excessive floridity.  Emotion is what people love about stories. People come to stories to be moved. To laugh, to cry, to be angry, to be horrified, to be transported, to be healed.  These things are what we love about the story journey.

But different storytellers will tell stories differently.  Some will be deeply colourful, some will be spare.  They can both convey emotion.  Don’t confuse real emotion with flowery language and never, ever, ever, try to change your natural style to align with some imagined ‘rule’.  Tips such as ‘show don’t tell’ are meant to help analyse a scene that isn’t working, not to mess up one that is.

The second problem with focussing on emotion is that you might be tempted to ‘tell’ the emotion.

Here is where ‘show don’t tell’ addresses WHAT to tell.

You must never ‘TELL’ what the scene is ABOUT.  And if the scene is always about EMOTION (it is), you must SHOW the emotion, not TELL me about it.

This was one of the hardest things for me to get my head around with this rule.  As writers, we think so much about emotion, that is seems natural to ‘talk’ about it when writing the scene.  We want the reader to know what the characters are feeling, surely?

Well, yes, but the point of your description is to make the reader feel the emotion, not tell them about it.  To ‘evoke’ not ‘state’ as my poet commenter last week said.

Okay, but how?  Before you bean me with your monitor, allow me to demonstrate:

Imagine, if you will, our heroine, let’s call her Jane, has come to the castle of the evil overload to demand that he release her father from his dungeons and give back her family lands (work with me here).

Jane stopped in front of the castle.  It was creepy.  A suitable setting for the Evil Overlord, but no place for a poor girl like Jane.  It scared her, even though she was trying to be brave.

Now, this paragraph is not the pits.  It tells us what is going on and gives us a bit of an insight into Jane’s state of mind.  But I don’t think it is particularly scary or moving.

Now try this one.

The walls of the castle loomed over Jane, visible only because they were even blacker than the surrounding sky.  This close to the moat, the chill was augmented by damp and foetid odours, the origin of which she chose not to think about.

Not for the first time, she wished she still had a horse.  Arriving on foot was hardly the impression she wanted to make.  But wishes were not horses.

She shivered; then she shook herself, pulled back her shoulders and straightened to her full height of not-quite-five feet.  Horse be damned. She was going in there and she had better make the best of it.

There is quite a bit of telling there.  Quite a bit more, in fact, than in the previous paragraph.  I’ve told you the castle walls were tall and made of black stone.  I’ve told you that Jane is horseless and short, that the moat smells and that she shivered.*

But I haven’t told you what to think or feel about those things.  I haven’t told you that the castle was ‘creepy’. I haven’t told you she was ‘scared’. I’ve given you details and left it to you to work out the effect of those details.  With luck, that means that YOU the reader, now feel damp, cold, overwhelmed and underfunded and worried about Jane, who is all those things and brave.

So how do you do this?

It comes back to imagination and really getting inside the head and the senses of your character.  I said it last week and I will say it again, because this is the true heart of ‘show, don’t tell.’  Tell me (the reader) about the elements of the scene in the way they affect the character. 

When your character fetches up in front of a creepy castle, don’t tell me it’s creepy and don’t describe a creepy castle from central casting either.  I don’t want to see the creepy castle I’ve seen in a hundred horror movies.  If you give me hackneyed phrases and images out of some half-remembered notion of what creepy is, your scene will be either boring, or worse, a parody of creepy.

No, I want you to go and stand in front of it in your mind.  Feel the bog, knee-deep and writing with disgusting, nameless things.  Strain your eyes through the moonless night and see how your vision goes weird and you start seeing things that aren’t there and stumbling over things that are.  Hear the rustles in the undergrowth that are probably squirrels, but which your imagination turns into wolves.  Or maybe they are really wolves.  It’s your story. Start fully populating your imaginary scene and who knows what you will find there?

And if you can’t imagine it, set your alarm and go outside in the middle of a winter’s night, dressed as your character would be and see what it feels like.

Then come back and tell me about that.  You won’t tell that story the same way I will.  Your version might be shorter or longer than someone else’s, full of beautiful words, or Hemingway-esque.  But I guarantee, if you fully imagine what you are seeing, feeling, touching, tasting and hearing and tell me about that, I’ll get the way it makes you feel.  And I will feel it too.

And that’s the end of this week’s installment.  Next week, we’re onto WHEN to tell.  I hope the series is helping, and once again, I am very interested in hearing your comments!


*It’s also longer and before you get upset, better is not always longer and not every little thing needs to be expanded.  But this is an important moment in the imaginary story and here, more detail is better and it works. I hope!

15 thoughts on “Show don’t tell: breaking it down, Part II

    • Ah, Casey, you’ve made my day! Isn’t it the way? It’s one of those sayings that is just taken as a sage, age-old wise given of writing and it seems so, until you come to use it and you find yourself tripping over exactly what it means. At least I did. Trying to tease it out is a useful exercise for me, too! Thanks for coming and commenting!

  1. Was stewing over this and read something that reminded me of this…”the fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap, words exist because of meaning, once you’ve gotten the meaning you can forget the words…words are the net we cast upon the waters..” Not sure why it reminded me of your blog, but just that we gotta use our words to capture the emotion, or the story, not tell it??

    • Actually, yes, kind of. That isn’t to say that words aren’t important, but they are important insofar, and only insofar, as they convey something. People who use them with extraordinary skill may convey humour or beauty in the way they put them together, as well as conveying meaning, but they are still using them to create a feeling in the reader, not as ends in themselves. In oral storytelling, we sometimes call this kind of telling ‘trance telling’. It’s what happens when a superlatively skilled teller uses all their skills to become almost invisible to the audience; a conduit for the story. The story is the thing and we exist to serve it. It’s another way to look at the task of writing, that our job is to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. Our skills should serve the conveyance of mood, of character of plot.

      Food for thought!

    • Of you, my dear non-professional moron (does that make you an amateur moron? These are mysteries) I would believe anything. But a daffodil field is quite a different story, I think…

  2. Another fascinating blog, Imelda. You’ve really thought deeply about this subject and have some valuable insights, clearly expressed and well illustrated by the examples. You ought to be a creative writing teacher. How can I access your own fiction?

    • Thanks, Peter! That means a lot to me. I have never been a ‘proper’ teacher but it’s in my blood on both sides of the family and I love doing workshops and the like. Breaking stuff down for someone else is a great way to get a good handle on it for oneself, I find.

      Thank you for asking re the fiction, too. I have a warm glow just from the question! I’m not published in fiction yet, but it is close, I hope and trust me, blog readers will be the FIRST to know!

  3. Pingback: Show don’t tell: breaking it down, Part III | Wine, Women & Wordplay

  4. Pingback: And then the blog went dark: for a little while | Wine, Women & Wordplay

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