Show Don’t Tell!?!?

Posted by on February 2, 2012 in Fiction, On Writing | Comments Off on Show Don’t Tell!?!?


written by Eric Staggs

Show don’t tell—at once the best and worst piece of advice a writer can hear. The first reaction is “But I’m telling a story!” The next thought in line is “this isn’t a screen play!”

A writer must balance their story with visual descriptors to avoid setting their story in a void. If the setting is not intrinsic to the story, then the audience will have a more difficult time sinking into it, melding with it. For example, while taking a writing class in my undergraduate program, I found myself in a discussion with a fellow student, about his work—a highly emotional tale about homosexual lovers in Nazi Germany. But he didn’t know anything about Berlin in 1938. His knowledge of the setting he’d chosen for his opus was based on WWII movies. Most of the story happened in very neutral environments that only happened to have a Swastika or Nazi flag in them. Without the Third Reich, his story could have taken place in New Jersey 1978 or Dubai 2001. It could have happened in space, aboard the starship Velvet. He was failing in his primary task of showing us, the audience, the world his characters lived in. His story happened in a void and made it unsympathetic to everyone.

Setting and place is just one aspect of “show don’t tell.” The other piece is engagement of the reader. Look at the following example:

A: He drank the whiskey. It burned and he coughed. His eyes watered. He sighed.

B: He jerked his head back and choked down the liquid gold. The smoky poison made his throat clench tight. His eyes, suddenly wet from the burning vapors, turned the piss colored lights of the dirty bar into watery snowflakes. As the chemical heat suffused his body, he let out a long breath.

Both A and B accomplish the same thing: they tell us that the character had some whiskey. In both A and B we get a sense for the characters comfort level with whiskey. That’s where the similarities stop.

B also tells us that the character is in a bar (not a void), more about what the character is experiencing and feeling. The character is more real because we can more easily imagine his discomfort. His eyes are burning; he’s fighting back a knee-jerk cough from a shot of hard liquor. We also get the impression that the character is under stress—but we don’t know how or from what. In fact, while B gives us huge amounts of information, it leaves us with many questions. Not to mention the fact that it tripled the word count.

The question now becomes, “How about situations where there’s a lot of telling naturally?” That is, what about dialogue? It can be argued that dialogue is naturally expository—we talk about things. But in reality, contrary to what George Lucas believes, most characters, people, monsters, aliens and animals do not say what they feel. Example:

“I am hurt. You are doing things to hurt me.” She said.
“You’re uncommunicative.” He retorted.
“I shouldn’t have to tell you how I feel.” She said.
“But how will I know then?” He asked.

She wouldn’t face him. He moved around the kitchen, trying to make eye contact, but she always found something else to occupy her attention. Finally, he stopped moving.
“What’s wrong?” He said softly, hoping his desperation didn’t come through in his voice. He felt a pressure in his chest, almost an ache.
“Nothing.” She pulled some carrots from the fridge and cut them slowly and firmly, feigning intense concentration.
“Can I help?” He reached out to take the knife from her. She recoiled in mid stroke and hissed as the silvery blade chewed deep into her finger.
“Look what you made me do!” She held her hand up accusingly, the crimson droplet growing bigger by the second. He glanced from her hand to her eyes, noticed they were red-rimmed and puffy.

C and D tell the audience there is a conflict of an unclear nature between the man and woman. C tells us there are hurt feelings and frustration.

D tells us (or implies) the couple lives together and that they have a ritual and routine of preparing a meal and eating it together. It tells us that they are both emotionally bound to one another, but are unable to communicate their emotions for some reason or other. The cut finger is a convenient (and heavy handed) metaphor for the woman’s emotional state. While D is predictable, it is still far better than C.

A rule of thumb, when writing to show and not tell, is to stop and look around. Center yourself in your characters eyes and look around. What do they see? What do they feel? Can they feel the soft padding of a high back leather chair? Maybe it’s the hard vibrations of a metal bench on a rattling subway car? Put yourself in their skin. Is it raining? Do they feel raindrops or stinging pellets of heavy water, splashing down with incredible force and fury, soaking their coat and clothes?

Think about it.

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