Rule: SHOW us the goods, don’t TELL us to buy them.
The old ‘show don’t tell’ rule is one of the most important for good writing, and once you understand it you’ll find yourself cringing over old work that suddenly appears gauche and overstated (I know I did).
So, what is the Show versus Tell rule? Aren’t they one and the same?
No. Showing means you illustrate a character’s thoughts and motivations, rather than explaining them to us. Primarily, a writer “shows” us things by using action and dialogue. For example, if we wanted to show that a character is angry via action or dialogue:
Action: Gary clenched his fists, eyes narrowed to a point.
Or via dialogue: “Too bad Mabel,” Gary growled. “You’re really going to get it this time!”
If we were to take the (cough) lazy way out, we could simply write: Gary felt angry at Mabel. But where’s the fun in that?
The Proof is in the Pudding
As a small experiment, I’ve written the same scene in two styles: Showing, versus Telling. Ask yourself which elicits a greater emotional response, allows you to connect more with the characters and draws you deeper into their story?
Gary was angry, very angry. Mabel had set his dinner down late, for the second night in a row. She was always forgetting him, tidying the house and folding the laundry, as if those things were more important than his empty belly. It was bad enough that he slogged away all day so that she could stay at home in her pretty little house, fussing over nothing. To then suffer the added insult of coming home to a dark kitchen and an empty plate was simply too much. He looked at her bumble around, feeling more annoyed with every moment.
Gary slammed his empty beer glass on the table, startling Mabel. She looked up with saucered eyes, the spoon in her hand suspended over a bubbling broth.
“I’m damn hungry,” he snapped, eyes flicking from the pot back up to her face. “I work a long day to come home, eat and sleep. Not starve.”
She switched off the stove and began ladling the soup, flinching as errant droplets splashed from the steaming bowl across her hands.
“Of course darling, I’m sorry. I got caught up with the laundry-”
“My arse, Mabel! A wife’s first concern is her man, not her sheets.”
The bowl almost wobbled right out of her hands and into his lap. “Sorry!” She finally set it down, wiping her reddened fingers against her apron. “Give it a moment, it’s hot.”
4 Principles of the ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Rule:
- From 2D to 3D: You are bringing the characters to life, creating a series of sounds and images in the reader’s mind. This keeps them from being 2D projections of “the angry man”, “the frightened woman” etc, and turns them in to people that shout, and clench and breathe, just like us.
- Join the Dots: No reader likes to be told what to think, we’re past the years of sitting still for our bedtime story. When you present a series of actions and dialogue, showing us what’s happened, the reader is invited to reach their own conclusions about the character’s mental state, and this engages them in the story. Tell them everything and they switch off.
- Belief: You might tell us the character is angry, but why should we take your word for it? The point of good writing is to make the reader forget that the story in their hands has been carefully manipulated to elicit an emotional response. The story will feel a lot more ‘organic’ (for lack of a better word) if you’re not cramming the character’s mental state down our throats, but simply presenting an objective view of what’s happening. Who would you believe more – the narrator who simply presents evidence, or a narrator who shares a series of opinions?
- A Picture’s Worth 1,000 Words: A recent study showed that up to 70% of communication occurs via body language, with participants remembering a person’s facial expressions more than their actual words. Paint a picture in the reader’s mind, and allow the character to say one thing, but move in a way that indicates an entirely different reaction altogether. This will add great nuance to your work.
Show Don’t Tell in Memoir
Almost every memoir I assess contains long accounts of how the author felt at particular times, often through experiences that were highly dramatic, or heart rending. Which is great. But they often forget that no matter how terrible, or extreme an experience may have been, the reader has absolutely no obligation to care. The job of a writer is to take that choice away from the reader, and force them to empathise with their story whether they want to or not. By and large, the most effective way of doing this is to ‘show don’t tell’. Here’s an example, in the context of a memoir.
I’ll never forget how my father used to take me fishing. He would sit and tell me I was the smartest little boy in the world, and when I landed a fish he was always so excited for me.
“That’s it Toby, cast wide.” I tried to focus, pulling my arm back and releasing in a fluid motion. The bait arced through air and fell close to the middle of the pond.
“You could join the Red Sox with a throw like that.” He tousled my hair with his big hand, fingers calloused from long days at the mill.
Do you have problems with showing, instead of telling in your writing? Use these tips to become more conscious of the times when you might be telling too much. And like all rules, this golden oldie is made to be broken. Sometimes it simply makes more sense to get right to the point and tell the reader something. As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing, you’re writing will be sure to hit the emotional nerves it needs to.