Show-Don't Tell, Must We?

I had always thought writers were individualists, and I'm sure most of them still are. This makes it all the harder for me to understand how a doctrine that is deeply prohibitive in nature could have assumed the status of a religious doctrine in a relatively short time.

Geoffrey Fowler
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   It is widely believed Anton Chekhov ushered in the 'show-don't tell' era by saying "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

  History is loaded with myths and this is one of them. The truth is, in a letter to his brother, he wrote "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."

  This is definitely is not telling, and it falls short of what is today called showing—It is a way of suggesting.

***

   I had always thought writers were individualists, and I'm sure most of them still are. This makes it all the harder for me to understand how a doctrine that is deeply prohibitive in nature could have assumed the status of a religious doctrine in a relatively short time. How did this happen? At what point in history did exposition, which has been a staple of English-language fiction for seven-hundred years, become a disease that had to be cured through massive injections of dialog and character-and-scene descriptions?

  Whether this is a step forward or a step backward is a matter of taste. As reader, I can't bear reading long stretches of dialog unless they're broken up in some way, and when I see a writer engaging in gratuitous descriptions of facial expressions, hair, clothes, buildings, rooms, streets, skies, shoes, and whatever else they could think of, I close the book.

One day, it occurred to me this over-description was the logical concomitant of television and the cinema crowding out books. I thought of it as the cinenamatization fiction.   My naïve belief that I had invented the term 'cinematized fiction'was dashed on the rocks of reality when I searched for it in Merriam Webster and found it was defined there as adapting a novel for the cinema. Merriam Webster also provided an example of  usage, And a generation of modern viewers, their inner lives cinematized from childhood on, knows it. — Richard Brody, The New Yorker, 16 May 2017.

  their inner lives cinematized from childhood on That resonated.

  My inner life has been cinematized since the first movie I saw as a child, but this didn't stand in the way of becoming a bibliophile, on the contrary, movies tell stories and this can lead to becoming addicted to fiction, on or off the screen.

  If show-don't tell advocated cinematicized literature. I would be its most passionate supporter at CC, but, unfortunately, it advocates self-censorship.

  My notion of cinematicized fiction is a story told using some of the techniques employed by Hollywood screenwriters, beginning the story with flashbacks or flashforwards and, if it supports the plot, repeating them at strategic moments. Hollywood screenwriters are talented writers; the have to be, studios want onlly the very best.

  The drawback of the show-don't tell manta is that it is too primitive to be of any use because its obsession with showing blinds it to the existence of Hollywood techniques like flashbacks and inner monologues—it may work in genres where dwarfs fight giants, but in stories about real people, it distract readers by inundating them with trivia.

***

  There are cases where neither telling nor showing is appropriate. Take, for example, a man learning through a phone call from a doctor friend of his that his wife died in surgery. I can think of plots where he would be overjoyed at hearing this and plots where the news would crush him, in neither case is exposition suitable. Having tears run down his face or having the narrator describe his look as 'crushed,' are both trite.

   This leaves suggestion and interior monologue: If the intention is showing that the man loved his wife, the author could have him say to his friend, "I need some fresh air, call me back later." or let the reader know what he's thinking through Oh God, Why did you do this to me. If the intention is suggesting the death of his wife didn't affect him, the author could have the man ask, Is our tennis match still on? " or show what he's thinking through, Finally.

  Lastly, there is the issue of narrative perspective. If a story is told by a first-person narrator-character, the line separating showing from telling is a very thin one because the main character shows and tells things about himself, and tells the reader things about other characters, as well. John Updike's Rabbit Run is a classic example of this.

   In closing, I'll give some examples, the first two are by Web gurus, and the third by me.

 

Web guru illustrating telling. “I heard footsteps creeping behind me and it made the whole situation scarier.”

Web guru illustrating showing. “Crunching hit my ears from behind, accelerating the already rampant pounding of my heart.” — this is god-awful showing, but, then, Web gurus are god-awful writers.

Me Suggesting. "I heard footsteps behind me."

   The last example has the advantage over telling, that readers aren't forced to accept the judgment of a character; they are now free agents on the alert, asking themselves what comes next. Suggestion has, in a certain way, made them adjuncts of the author. That is why I am now a 'suggest-don't tell-and -don't show either,' writer.

19+ Comments

Wendyg

In case it’s of interest to anybody, here’s another, by Emma Darwin

https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2015/02/showing-and-telling-cooperation-not-competition.html

Jan-11 at 01:28

Leglessme

Many excellent points. Thanks for this article.

Years ago when I began writing and I was in RWA, that was the mantra: Show, don’t tell. I’d always not known the difference. After years of trying, I got the show-don’t-tell nearly down and felt confident in my writing. Then, in the last month, I bought and read a most popular romance series. They books are several years to a decadwe or more old, but still modern. They are a mixture of showing and telling, head hopping (but in a smooth way) and blocks and blocks of inner dialog/thoughts between minimal dialog.

Huh.

While I developed my own voice over the years, if she’s so successful, why did I change? Now, I’m not certain I needed to. So, when I came back from my enforced break in writing to begin again, I found my very older style creeping back in–but only a little, enough that I find my prose improving.

I’m a visual writer, or so I have been told. People who read things I’ve written remember them, which I found strange, which is when one writer remarked I am a visual writer so it did’t surprise her. I was an indifferent reader but always a watcher of TV/Film as a kid, so this doesn’t surprise me in retrospect.

Show-don’t-tell–I think it should be a thing of the past.

Jan-11 at 01:39

Nathanj

Looking at the examples.

Web guru illustrating t elling . “I heard footsteps creeping behind me and it made the whole situation scarier.”

Web guru illustrating showing. “Crunching hit my ears from behind, accelerating the already rampant pounding of my heart.” — this is god-awful showing, but, then, Web gurus are god-awful writers.

Me Suggesting. “I heard footsteps behind me.”

I personally like both the first and third example, find the second one annoying.
But the phrase “I heard” is in both of them.
Isn’t that something critters here condemn as “filtering”?

Jan-11 at 01:47

Leglessme

Yes, some do. They would rather something like “there was a footstep behind me” be written.

Jan-11 at 01:49

Nathanj

Which will in turn be condemned by someone else for being “passive” or using “was”.
That’s where I get stuck.
When there are several ways to describe something, and you can find a rule to make most of them “wrong”.

Jan-11 at 01:54

Leglessme

I hear you. After reading some very popular novels in my genre I have decided to ignore it all and just go for what I want.

Jan-11 at 01:57

1910orange

These little things are not my concern as a reader, actually. What I’ll actually look for is understanding your unique narrative voice and see which is more natural.

It’s the same with all three of the examples.

Jan-11 at 02:06

Jongoff

This is a common misconception a lot of people have, but the reason it has become a de facto rule, if it can be called such, is because it makes for better, more immersive writing. The misconception lies in the idea of what show versus tell is. In reality, there is no showing in writing. How can there be? Everything is telling, if we’re being literal, because we’re using words, not images, to convey ideas, concepts, thoughts, scene, characters, etc. It is all telling, but there is a way to tell that evokes images, emotions, thoughts, feelings, sentiments, etc. In other words, it’s a way to immerse the reader in the story, to bring them more fully into it.

Nor is it a relatively new concept. Shakespeare was a master of showing, not telling. Consider his sonnets, in particular, sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The imagery of this poem is evocative, clear, and engages the imagination to visualize the imagery it describes. Exposition is difficult to follow, dull, and non immersive. I always hear writers calling for the end of the technique, but the truth is they often do so when they don’t understand it. I’ve taught creative writing, and I’ve heard this call to end the practice every time, but when the writer finally grasps the concept and sees how much more powerful their writing becomes, they change their mind.

The idea behind Show versus tell is not to get rid of exposition altogether, nor to write minutely detailed scenes filled with all sorts of descriptive minutia, but to find a way to engage the reader’s imagination so that they can participate in the creation of the story. Good writing is the art of recalling to the readers a memory of experiences they never had.

That can only be done through engaging their imagination, and that is done through writing in such a way as to evoke images, emotions, and personal experience which they bring to the story. It’s a collaborative effort, and it is what happens when an author has mastered the skill of showing instead of telling.

Jan-11 at 02:11

Stromberg

Oh, god, please tell me you made up that “Web guru illustrating showing” example…

If I’d been drinking milk, it would have squirted out my nose.

Jan-11 at 02:38

Alexmcg

I have one rule in writing. Does it work?
There are places to show and other places to tell, a lot depends on the importance of the scene and the moment.

Filter verbs can be a challenge, but as the examples showed, sometimes you are better using the filter verb to give more emphasis to the rest of the information.

I would write the sentence if the footsteps were very important as
Footsteps echoed behind me, sending my heart into my throat.

Jan-11 at 05:27

Elliestorm

my only contribution is that there is a time to tell and a time to show. more often its show time, but telling does have a place when used correctly.

Jan-11 at 06:08

Timark

i ll just write, others can tell me whether its too much showing or telling. And i will agree or disagree.

its off the cuff.

I think sometimes it should suit the characters… if a character is artys and whimsical the imagery should reflect that

if a character is very down to earth and gruff…i think there is more scope for telling. Imgery gets basic…so why shouldnt telling be employed a bit more

I could be wrong though.

Jan-11 at 06:10

Elliestorm

telling tells the reader conclusions where as showing lets the reader draw conclusions. having learned a bit about this I can tell it has elevated my level of writing to move towards showing more than telling.

Its easy to think about, you just sit on your characters shoulder and think about what can they see, touch, taste, smell, hear. Limit the information supplied to that idea and it works quite well. Telling is letting the authors voice come through most of the time and it tends to add waffle more than contribute to the plot.

in saying that … thoughts would be a tell. little moments where you give insight into the current character’s head your in would be telling. which is why I think there is a place for telling, but it needs to be carefully done and sparingly.

Most of the telling I see is the author thinking aloud in their story rather than culling what needs to be said at the time. ie the half page of back story in the middle of an action scene.

Jan-11 at 06:16

Timark

well that is more about poor placement of backstory.

he stopped mid fight , wait a moment lads, can any of you smell the lavender. my god that takes me back, my grandmothers cottage…

lol

Jan-11 at 06:24

Elliestorm

hahaha yeah that’s the perfect place to stop and smell lavender lol

Jan-11 at 06:37

1910orange

True allegiance xD

One of the characters went to full on flashback mode while investigating something a terrorist plot.

That flashback mode covers his entire love life.

Jan-11 at 06:47

Elliestorm

honestly I think that the whole “Show don’t tell” mantra is aimed at newbies. Because they tend to think aloud in their work or they haven’t learned that their inner voice is great … in their head … but not so much on paper. They haven’t learned to edit themselves yet. And its a great mantra for starting that process and starting to learn that process of how to craft a story.

not speaking from personal experience here at all …

Jan-11 at 06:50

Timark

ha

Jan-11 at 07:07

Timark

preach it brother!

Jan-11 at 07:16
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