Show, Don’t Tell is a mantra frequently repeated to new fiction writers. It’s good advice, but can cause some confusion unless it’s properly explained.
I was reminded of this by a question posed a while ago on the forum at www.mywriterscircle.com. The question was as follows:
“I’m a new writer and I know that the main thing new writers do is that they tell and don’t show. I get that. I just don’t get how you would show things. Not really.
Okay, this is hard to explain. I have seen instances where it’s shown, I just don’t get how to do it.
For example: I want to show that someone is quiet and doesn’t talk a lot about herself. How would I do that?”
I thought this was a great question, and one that deserved a reasonably in-depth answer.
I wrote about this subject at some length in my CD course Write Any Book in Under 28 Days. I’ve therefore adapted the relevant section in my answer below, starting with a couple of examples…
(1) It was nine o’clock on the night of Sunday 16 October 2009. This was also the date when, six years earlier, a young cashier named Nicola Smith had been murdered in the bank. Tonight another young cashier, Catherine Nicholls, was working late in the bank on her own.
(2) Catherine gazed up from her report to the desk calendar. The date showing was Sunday 16 October 2012. She sighed. Working alone on a Sunday night was bad enough, but the fact that it also happened to be the sixth anniversary of Nicola Smith’s murder in this very building was giving her a bad case of the jitters.
In the first example the writer is simply telling the reader things. This is sometimes called reportage.
Much the same information is conveyed in the second example, but here all the events are portrayed through the eyes of a (third-person) viewpoint character, Catherine. The second example works much better at bringing the character of Catherine, and hence the story, to life.
Show, Don’t Tell can be expressed in another way: Write In Scenes. Think of your story as a movie or TV show. Rather than telling your readers what happens, your story will be much more entertaining if you show it in a series of vividly portrayed scenes.
Many new writers have difficulty grasping this concept. So they write material such as the following:
George Johnson was in the dining room. He was a tall, thin man with a permanently mournful expression, aged fifty-two. He had spent all his adult life working in local government. He sat at the table and looked at the kitchen door expectantly.
Rosemary, his wife of twenty years, knew he would be expecting his usual Thursday night steak. George lived by his routines, and normally Rosemary was happy to go along with them. Someone else might have resented it, but she was normally very easy-going. That day, however, she had had the urge to try something different, so at the supermarket she had gone past the meat to the fish counter, and bought red mullet instead.
When George saw the fish, he wondered for a moment whether he had become confused and today was Friday rather than Thursday. He asked Rosemary what was going on. A few moments later he would lose his temper.
Written (correctly) as a scene, this might look more like the version below:
“Is it ready yet?” George shouted from the dining room.
“Nearly,” Rosemary shouted back. Six new potatoes were neatly stacked on the dinner plate, topped with a sprig of mint and a dollop of butter. The garden peas steamed appetizingly in a little mound alongside them. The fish was almost ready to come out of the oven.
Everything looked perfect, but she hesitated. George could be such a stick-in-the-mud. He liked his routines. But just for once, she had decided to do something different. Oh well, it was too late to change now. She put the fish on his plate and took it into the dining room.
George looked down at the plate in front of him. “What’s this?”
“It’s fish. Red mullet.”
“But today’s Thursday.”
Rosemary noticed a pinkish tinge creeping up from his collar. Inwardly, she sighed.
“I know it’s Thursday. I know we always have steak on Thursday. But just for once, I thought we’d try something different.”
As these examples demonstrate, Show, Don’t Tell is closely linked with the principle of writing from a single viewpoint.
In beginners’ work, the viewpoint is often vague and constantly shifting – from Character A, to Character B, to the omniscient author, back to A again, and so on. By contrast, in a story written in scenes, consistency of viewpoint is usually maintained throughout each scene (though different scenes may have different viewpoint characters).
Look again at the examples with George and Rosemary. The first begins with a few sentences of explanation from the author’s perspective. Then the viewpoint shifts to Rosemary, then to George, and finally back to the author again.
By contrast, the second is written as a scene, portrayed from the first word to the last from Rosemary’s point of view. I hope you will agree that the second version is more vivid and entertaining for the reader than the first (and, incidentally, helps and encourages readers to identify with Rosemary).
One other thing to watch is when a large proportion of your story consists of one character telling another about something. This is telling rather than showing in another guise. If the action described is important, show it to the reader as it happens, rather than have a character in the story tell someone else about it later.
Returning to the question reproduced at the start of this post, saying that someone is quiet and doesn’t talk much about herself is – of course – telling.
If you wanted to show this instead, the key would be to portray the story in scenes from either her viewpoint or someone else’s. The action and dialogue (and thoughts if you use her as a viewpoint character) will then convey the desired impression to your reader. Something like this, maybe:
The hands of the clock crept slowly but inexorably toward five. Susie logged off her computer and closed it down.
Her colleague Clare was way ahead of her. Her computer was already off, and she was touching up her lipstick. She caught Susie’s eye and grinned. “Friday night at last! I suppose you’ll be out clubbing it again tonight.”
“No.” Susie picked up her handbag and headed toward the door.
“Oh, come on. I know you’re out every night really. That Goody Two Shoes schtick is just an act, isn’t it?”
“See you on Monday, Clare.”
Susie closed the office door behind her and headed out into the high street. She took a deep breath, relieved that another week was over and she didn’t have to pretend to be sociable with her colleagues till Monday. And her favourite dance show was on TV tonight! Despite what Clare might have thought, a night in watching the stars twirl, her ginger cat Darcy purring on her lap, suited her just fine.
As characterization goes, that’s about as subtle as a brick, but in a short story for the popular market, it would serve to establish your viewpoint character as a quiet, stay-at-home type. And it does so by showing rather than telling.
To sum up, here are a few tips to help you follow the Show, Don’t Tell principle throughout your story…
* Write in scenes portrayed through the eyes (and other senses) of a viewpoint character.
* Don’t switch viewpoints in mid-scene.
* Don’t include asides or other information that can only come from the author.
* Aim for as high as possible a proportion of action and dialogue.
* Keep reportage and reminiscence to a minimum.
* Aim to write most of your story in your characters’ present.
* Avoid having characters tell one another about events – if something is important to the story, show it happening instead.
If you have any comments of your own about “Show, Don’t Tell”, please do leave them below!
Photo credit: CC BY by Akuppa