Writing Post: “Show, Don’t Tell”

As I’ve mentioned before, I was daft enough to hurl myself into an apparently unending debt to the Student Loans Company in exchange for something masquerading as an education in writing, variant: creative. Most of what I learnt was commonsense advice which you can get from five minutes of conversation with a reasonably self-aware writer (and should), and the rest was exercises which one can reasonably make up for oneself.

One thing that was infuriatingly never explained on that course or at any other writing workshop I attended, but which is thrown out as a baseline piece of advice by almost everyone, was: “Show, don’t tell.” I had to figure out precisely what this was supposed to mean on my own, because once people have entrenched themselves in the business of throwing ideas onto paper, they tend to forget that not everything about their method is self-evident.

Well I have to tell, don’t I? I’m writing, not drawing a picture.

And anyone who responds to this question with “you need to paint a picture with words” is deserving of a slap for being such a tit.

The problem is that human brains love working shit out from the cues around them. They like to be stimulated, and they’re extremely good (sometimes a little over-active) in inferring motivations from actions, interiority from external clues, and thought-processes from facial expressions. They like evidence in their ears and eyes, and become a little bored with being fed assertions that come without support.

If you want to enthral or absorb your readers in a story (and I would hope that you do) or at the very least want them to go on reading it, they need to have a sense of what is going on, and then have some work to do for themselves.

Reportage is the business of handing over the facts in the quickest, most palatable selection of bite-sized brain chunks, fiction should, hopefully, given your brain a little more to play with in order to keep you invested in the story and the characters.

Alright then, smarty-pants, how? Because I’m not getting this.

Well, assume you have … I don’t know, some bloke called Gary. And in your story, Gary is pissed off. In real life when people are pissed off they don’t usually need to utter the words “I am pissed off” unless they are a champion-grade represser, because by the time it comes up you will have already noticed from hundreds of cues.

They might, for example, sigh aggressively, slam kitchen drawers, thump things about, and generally impose themselves physically on the world around them with more weight than usual. Our Gary might vibrate with tension, clench his jaw, or glare and fume. At this point there’s no need to tell people he’s angry, they’ve “seen” it. They’ll instead start working out why he’s angry.

“Show, don’t tell” requires you to have a good mental image or map of your characters and their reactions and personalities, and it requires that you have a good mental map of their surroundings. It takes a little more work than stating bald fact but it produces a much clearer and more engrossing effect.

Well what about people who miss all the clues?

People missing what’s being laid out for them is definitely a problem, but you can lay it on quite thick if you choose, and remember it’s always possible if you’re so minded to have a character make the observation based on the available facts (if you’re feeling sneaky you can of course have them be wrong in their assumption, which makes the reader feel cleverer than the character) and reinforce the impression left by the unspoken hints.

This can be done earnestly: for example, in the case of our Gary up there, someone might just ask him what the matter is; or it can be done ironically, in which case someone might very well dryly say, “I’m getting the impression you’re not altogether happy” (for an excellent example of this in TV, see Blackadder II, Episode 1: Bells‘s opening scene). In these circumstances the dialogue acts as a punchline or a bookend to the action, “telling” the reader what they either know or suspect, and confirming their suspicions for them, thus making them feel all the more clever for having got it “right”.

What you’re saying is that it amounts to manipulating the readers?

Oh god everything amounts to manipulating the readers! Fiction is just lying to people with more interesting words. I mean, you’re making stuff up. The trick is to make it believable and compelling stuff so that you con people into loving it as much as you love the story that’s already in your head, and caring as much as you already do about the characters you’ve invented.

And besides, laying down breadcrumb trails for people to follow is fun. Certainly more than drilling everything into them without room for reinterpretation; wriggle room like that is what gets people talking about what they’ve read, discussing their theories, and getting other people interested in your work, too. Not to mention – as I keep carping on about it – it is much more likely to hold people’s attention and immerse them properly in the story.

Do you really think it’s a difficult notion for me to grasp?

Not exactly, no, but the simplicity of it can be deceitful. The mantra of “show, don’t tell” is concise to help people remember it. It’s the kind of thing you jot down on a post-it by the monitor or scribble on the back of your hand (or growl at your past self when you come to edit your own work, like I do fairly often), but it is often hard to translate the mantra into action. It’s easier to write, “Gary was pissed off with Delilah for lecturing him about how to write,” but more satisfying to write, “once Gary had finished reading the post he left a comment reading ‘u r a dick who do u think u r,” and give the matter more realistic weight.

You are a terrible hypocrite and not a very good writer.

I know, I know. But promise you’ll at least try to keep it in mind.

Equally dictatorial writing advice, exercises, and essays can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t.


4 thoughts on “Writing Post: “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. One of the greatest blog posts ever written, which means inevitably that this will be its only comment. I hope not though! 😉

    I never know what people mean by ‘show, don’t tell’ but NOW I DO. I like to be a bit heavy handed with the suspense so I think I am a showing sort but now I need to go and look at my writing, where no doubt I will be greeted by endless parades of characters ‘being sad’ and ‘looking angry’. Oh, I can’t bear to look.

    Next, do you think you could explain ‘passive voice’ because I’ll be bejiggered if I know what it means…

    1. I have to say that what I remember from the Diary at least there was a good use of showing (for some reason – I think I didn’t read it as closely – I don’t remember Blood Sisters as well, but I am pretty sure it did this too) in conjunction with Marie talking directly about her feelings the way that teenage girls tend to! The format really worked in its favour.

      Oh god Melanie, I have to go and do ACTUAL RESEARCH for that because it’s always stumped me as well. Might be a good exercise to finally work out what it is!

  2. “Oh god everything amounts to manipulating the readers! Fiction is just lying to people with more interesting words. I mean, you’re making stuff up.”

    Brilliant! Now if only people who write shitty porn could read this and write it BETTER.

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