Show | Don’t Tell

You’ve just finished work on a dreary day. You may be a commuter in need of a read for the train journey home. Here is a lovely bookshop enticing you with a multitude of offerings, but which will you pick? You may be tempted to go straight for a tried and trusted genre, but even after narrowing it down to this, your job is not yet done. You will have to leaf through a few books until you find the right one for you. How will you decide?

I imagine that each of us has a different way of going about it. For me the first page is key. I will open up the book and often discard it after the first paragraph. If I’m not caught yet, chances are I won’t continue reading. If the first paragraph makes for good reading, I will continue on until I have finished the first page. In most cases, my mind is made up by the time I’ve turned to the second.

In view of this, I was not surprised to discover that 99% of manuscripts submitted to agents and publishers are dismissed on the basis of the first five pages.

Five pages? Really? Is this all the space and time we are given to prove our worth? Apparently so.

'The manuscript is 'green' because it's typed entirely on the backs of rejection slips.'That is not to say that  an agent will take an author on the basis of five good pages alone, but this is the window of opportunity to impress and to persuade them to continue reading. The writing tips I’ve shared so far were geared specifically towards this:

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— Immaculate presentation that follows the rules set by the agent or publisher in question.

— Well constructed sentences and appropriate use of punctuation to create the right sound.

— Avoiding the trappings of unsuitable style.

— A manuscript that has been purged of excess adjectives and adverbs.

— Nurturing specificity and rich vocabulary when using comparison.

— Mastering the art of writing great dialogue.

Now that our overworked agent/publisher is caught, we need to keep them on side. Would be a pity to give them an excuse to eliminate us from their must reads after a good start. They’ve made it through those five pages. They are intrigued, but their brow is knitted still. Lips pursed and pen tapping hurriedly page after page, they are searching for a weakness, something that will justify them in setting this manuscript aside and moving on to the next – there are hundreds more waiting after all. What are they looking for?

Ah yes… that good old tell-tale sign of lazy writing: too much telling, not enough showing.

SHOW | DON’T TELL

This is one message that I shout to myself every time I come across an instance of unnecessary telling in my own narrative. Telling works just fine for outlines and drafts, but when it comes to publishable stories, it simply won’t do. Let’s break it down into the Wheres and Hows:

Easy places to look for telling that ought to be showing:

A. When introducing characters or settings,

B. When giving characters’ backstory,

C. Where there are a multitude of events following one another in quick succession,

D. In the gaps between major scenes, where what happens is described rather than happening,

E. Anywhere in the narrative where there is information instead of action.

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Next, some ways in which to figure out how the telling is done:

1. Character description: This is where the fault line begins. Writers are expected to describe their characters, give an indication as to what they look like and who they are. While in the past authors could get away with paragraphs upon paragraphs of this, that is no longer the case.

When it comes to physical description light brushstrokes are preferred to in depth characterisation. For the protagonist we may get away with more, but it is still better if the description is sprinkled here and there, rather than concentrated in one place. For all other characters: pick one main feature that would set them apart from the crowd and leave it at that. Three at most if you must. If a character’s traits are all average then describing them will hardly paint a memorable picture: “Here’s average Bill meeting average Mary on an average day for an average exchange. Blah.”

To tell a reader what characters are like, on the other hand, is a big NoNo. If they are kind, catch them in the act and show them doing something that would imply to the reader that this is how they are. If they are brutal or a liar, then we must see them acting with brutality or lying through their teeth, and so on.

The same goes for places. Showing what a place or a setting is like is much more difficult that telling, but do it well and a reader will feel like they have seen it instead of reading about it in a substandard tourist brochure.

Show and let the reader come to their own conclusions about characters and places.

2. By interpreting we make the story our own. When a writer tells the reader that their character is an alcoholic then the reader has no other option than to accept this. There is no room for interpretation. On the other hand, if the reader sees the character drinking again and again they might try to find other explanations for their actions:

  • the character may be undergoing some physical strain and trying to numb it with alcohol, perhaps they were a soldier and those old wounds are still bothering them on a cold day;
  • the character may be under emotional strain: why did that phone call with their ex make them take to the bottle?
  • s/he may use alcohol to relax: are they about to take a major decision and need something to take off the edge?
  • …or to chase away bad memories. Did something happen in their past that they can’t get over? Are they drinking to forget?
  • Perhaps they are an alcoholic, but what got them there in the first place?

Even if the reader reaches the conclusion we want them to reach, by having to think about it they make the story and the characters their own. They will endow the characters with their own life experience and rich internal life. It would be a mistake to rob them of this opportunity. If the story is theirs, they will keep reading.

Show the reader a character who starves their child and they will not need to be told that the guy is a heartless good-for-nothing villan.

3. Tell and all you have is description. Show and you’ve got yourself a scene. Scenes are what make up a novel. In telling what should happen rather than showing it in action, we describe events instead of allowing them to unfold, so that the narrative reads like the outline of a story rather than being one.

It is impossible to experience something that does not actually happen. We can only get into the character’s shoes when we live the story alongside them. By showing, by going into some detail for both inner and outer life, we pull the reader into the world we’ve created.

Of course, it is impossible to dramatise every single event, so it is key to pick carefully those parts of the story that render themselves to becoming tense, conflict-filled, therefore dramatic scenes.

4. There comes a time when telling is in order. Of course, it is impossible to show everything. Some things need to be told, but when we do it with a purpose in mind it is possible to strike the right balance between the two. Here are a few examples of good places where telling is a necessity:

  • To establish narrators and viewpoint characters,
  • To allow a character to give their opinion about someone else in the story (this can be a good way of “showing” that character’s point of view, giving their perspective.)
  • To establish conflict between what a character tells us, either about themselves or someone else, and what their actions show us to be the truth (great for establishing an untrustworthy viewpoint character)

More on characterisation to follow… but if you are curious about a villain’s fate or are in the mood for a laugh perhaps Despicable Me will oblige 😉

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22 thoughts on “Show | Don’t Tell

    • Thank you 🙂 Doing my best to share what I’ve learnt so far. Hopefully it will help others avoid those traps into which I have stumbled unawares when I first began to write

  1. Pingback: Show | Don’t Tell | thewriterscafe247

  2. Hi. Thanks for reading my poem and leaving a comment. I like this billboard. We were taught some things about Solomon today in church. He wrote Song of Solomon in the Bible. Have you ever read that before? It might tell you about “making love” from a biblical, godly standpoint. I think that sex must be better in a commited relationship for sure, at least. When/if I get married, I’ll be glad to hear, hopefully, that my future husband has not been “test drove” that much. – A Christian chick

    • Thank you for your comment, Nowelle. I was brought up as a Christian, and although I am no longer one, I have not yet forgotten the prescripts of the Bible – having read it at least a half dozen times from start to finish back in the day. I appreciate the sentiment re your future husband. In all fairness though, I don’t mind about how much one is test-driven 😉 I take the don’t ask/don’t tell line myself. Better for everyone’s peace of mind 🙂
      Best regards,
      Vic

  3. Nice reminders, thanks! And then there are those who believe an unremarkable first line is enough to have your m/s scattered to the dreaded slush pile. It’s like Philippe Petit balancing on the tight rope–a 350 page novel teetering on perhaps 12 words.:-)

  4. Excellent post! This is exactly what we were discussing in the writers group I go to every week. Show, Don’t Tell! I have to admit, at first it was hard for me to do. I was a very big teller back in the day but after years of practice, and hours of editing I’ve gotten a lot better at showing. I don’t think showing comes to many writers naturally? I have yet to meet someone who is able to show automatically in their first draft, and tell only when necessary.

    • Thank you. I tend to think primarily in scenes – it must be the influence of movie-watching, so when I write I try to show what I see, although it is always a struggle to convey it in quite the detail available to my imagination. However, it is much tougher once the major scenes are written and I have to find a way to connect the narrative up: I have to find my way from the telling in the outline to the showing of new scenes. Tough work, but usually worth it. You are right, first drafts to tend to have a lot of telling.

  5. Pingback: Out of Character? | vic briggs

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