Let me guess.
You are new or not so new to writing, and you keep hearing about this mysterious “Show, don’t tell” rule. Everyone’s talking about it: bloggers, authors, writing instructors. Doesn’t it seem like the be-all and end-all of writing?
But do you have any idea what it means?
Neither did I.
A caveat: “Show, don’t tell” has nothing to do with Ramona Quimby bringing her doll Chevrolet (named after her aunt’s car) to kindergarten.
Crime and Punishment
If you ever saw The Untouchables (back when Kevin Costner was at his most gorgeous), no doubt you remember the scene where Robert De Niro, as Al Capone, is striding up and down the boardroom lecturing about loyalty when he suddenly stops, takes a mallet, and bashes a man’s head in.
That’s how I used to imagine writers will be punished for not obeying the “Show, don’t tell” rule. Imagine a room full of senior editors and gravelly voiced literary agents sitting around a long, rectangular table deciding which writer’s head to bash in (or whose book to reject) for the crime of telling and not showing.
How can you tell the difference between showing and telling? Aren’t they the same thing, only different? And who’s checking to see if it’s being done right?
The Show-and-Tell Mystique
Although showing rather than telling is indeed the foundation of descriptive prose for both fiction and non-fiction (and even for content writing, I might add), the key to unlocking its mystery is to realize that it’s not mysterious at all. Basically, it’s just a fancy way to say “Use active voice, interesting verbs, and all five senses.”
There; that wasn’t so bad, was it?
I think the best way to explain “Show, don’t tell” is to show you through great prose instead of tell you with useless platitudes. Here are three basic techniques to enliven your writing:
1. Make it sensual. Close your eyes and imagine your characters or your subjects. What are they doing, physically feeling, seeing, hearing? Where is the scene taking place? For fiction, how can you use these resources to move the plot along? Ditto for non-fiction: avail yourself of the five senses to describe your subject, to paint a historical or scenic background, or to deliver information. Warning: this doesn’t mean to be overly verbose or flowery (see number 3, below).
Listen to this account of a slave being whipped in Sue Monk Kidd’s wonderful novel, The Invention of Wings. Pay attention to the senses she uses in these five sentences:
Is that good writing or what? What would it have sounded like had the whipping been merely “told”? Probably something like this:
Which passage would you rather read? Which evokes a perfect picture of the scene? Which evokes more powerful emotions in you?
2. Show the effect, not the cause. Credit for this one goes to Tom Farr, who is a storyteller, blogger, freelance writer, and high school English teacher. In his blog post, he suggests that causes are described by “to be” verbs, whereas effects naturally tend toward action verbs. He’s also an advocate of using the five senses to describe an effect.
Here’s another beautiful paragraph from The Invention of Wings. This time, the slave’s dying owner is being fed soup by his daughter. Pay attention to the diversity and vividness of the verbs Kidd uses here:
I brought cod soup to Father’s room. When he tried to eat it, his hand quivered so violently, spoonfuls splattered onto the bed sheets. He lay back against the bedstead and let me feed him. I chattered about the squalling ocean, about the serpentine steps that led from the hotel down to the shore, almost frantic to divert us from what was happening. His mouth opening and closing like a baby bird’s. Ladling in the colorless broth. The helplessness of it.
What caused all this beautiful prose to happen?
- The father was too sick to eat in the dining room.
- His hand was shaking.
- He was too weak to sit up straight in bed and to eat on his own.
- He was dying.
- He was unable to feed himself.
- The soup was unappetizing.
- He was helpless.
Look at all the “to be” words in this list! Can you imagine reading a paragraph composed of these sentences? It’s enough to make even me want to bash someone’s head in.
Use action verbs, new verbs, exciting verbs, evocative verbs. (But don’t go overboard and don’t get weird.)
3. Make your words earn their keep. Consider Alvin Toffler’s description of modern life in his classic non-fiction work, Future Shock:
As we rush toward super-industrialism…we find people adopting and discarding lifestyles at a rate that would have staggered the members of any previous generation. For the lifestyle itself has become a throwaway item.
Or would you have preferred to read: “As our progress toward super-industrialism gets faster, we find people changing lifestyles much faster than people did in earlier times. For the lifestyle itself has become disposable.”
Not bad, but isn’t “we rush” more concise and descriptive than “our progress…gets faster”? Isn’t “at a rate that would have staggered the…previous generation” much more nuanced than “faster than people did in earlier times”? Doesn’t the power of “a throwaway item” evoke more emotion than “disposable” does? It’s like the difference between color and grey scale.
A Voice of Dissent
I recently read a thought-provoking post by Joshua Henkin, who is both a prolific writer and the director of the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. He brings up four important points, some of which I have quoted verbatim:
- The phrase “Show, don’t tell” is an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.
- It’s much easier to write “the big brown torn vinyl couch” than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language.
- The phrase “Show, don’t tell” provides cover for writers who don’t want to do what’s hardest but most crucial in fiction (i.e., describing internal emotional states).
- The “Show, don’t tell” rule doesn’t mean that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy, i.e., that he or she should never “tell.”
I like what Henkin says because we can easily get enmeshed in the net of writers’ bromides and well-worn hacks, and our writing will reflect the stiff, overly self-conscious style that comes from constantly looking over our shoulder and rigidly following a set of rules. Our writing would be like shooting an arrow and then drawing the bull’s-eye.
My recommendation? Maintain an uneven balance between Show and Tell in your prose.
Here’s a challenge: take a well-written paragraph from any book you have in your house, and rewrite it as a “tell” paragraph. Then write your own “tell” paragraph and turn it into a “show” one. I’ll publish a few of the results on my Writer’s Clinic page for the next post.
Maybe the phrase “Show, don’t tell” just needs a new name. What do you think? What would you call it? Let me know in the comments below, or shoot me an email. I’ll publish also these answers in the next post.