Monday, January 27, 2014

Show and Tell

I'm going to say something here, which may cast doubt on my writing ability and the quality of the first two books I've self-published. (Well, the quality of the first book was bad regardless, there's no disputing that.)

I never really got the whole line of "Show, don't tell." until recently.

Now, the phrase "Show, don't tell." is one of the most common pieces of advice any writer is going to get, and while it sounds simple enough, its one of those things that can be very difficult to let fully sink in.

Now, I've understood for a while that as writers, we need to pick our main character and more often than not, show the story through their eyes, feelings, and thoughts. When we're doing that, it works better to immerse the reader if you can engage as many different senses as possible. That means describing what they do, see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. For the most part, that means I was showing, not telling, for a fair portion of my writing, but that doesn't mean I understood the phrase or that I was successfully doing it all the time.

One thing about me, I love using quotes. This one, is what I'm talking about. Many times in the past, when people have given me the advice of "Show, don't tell.", none of them could actually elaborate further on the subject. They've told me things like "You'll just know." or given me long-winded speeches from which I could actually glean very little insight. And, while I was doing it to a degree, and could also explain it to others if they had half an hour to listen to my experience-based anecdotes and contemplations; I could never boil it down to a single, easy, example. 

So, now, when I say it's finally clicked for me. I can give that example. This, is the basic explanation of "Show, don't tell."

Telling: "Anne was pissed off at her mom." 

Showing: "Anne slammed her bedroom door as hard as she could, refusing to come out no matter how many times her mom called to her." 

Now, even as simple an example as that is, it might not click yet for some of you, and that's okay. It's about getting the wheels turning. It's about being intuitive to the words as they're used. Some people just aren't good at inferences, and inference is what "Show, don't tell" is all about. It's about making people realize the idea, without actually telling them in specific language. 

It's Pictionary. 

For those of you not familiar with Pictionary, it's a party game for four or more people. You have a large sketch-board, and a box of cards. You get a card and you have to draw something so that your partner can guess what is on the card. You can give hints, but the rules say no words in the drawing or you automatically lose the round. Like this. 

In my example of Telling and Showing above, the key is to infer what was told, from what was shown. 

Anne slammed the door of her room. - Seems to me like she's upset at the very least, if not fully pissed off. 

She refuses to come out no matter how many times her mom asks. - Hmm. Ignoring her mom, wonder if that might be who she's pissed at. 

"Show, don't tell" is about action. Don't just tell us things like "Anne was pissed off at her mom.". Show us through the things the characters do. Show us what Anne does when she's pissed off. Show us who she is pissed off at by how she treats them. Now, it's very true that some people will read through that and not put two and two together, but more readers will appreciate work which makes them think a little, without being handed the information in straight-out, boring terms. 

Also, showing instead of telling, for those concerned about such a thing, will usually lead to a higher word count. 

And no, I'm not telling you the answer to the Pictionary picture. You'll have to figure it out yourself. 

~ Shaun


  1. It's Beetlejuice, right?


    Damn it, was never very good at Pictionary.

    (Excellent post, though. I may have to steal this for the writing class I teach.)

    1. You're more than welcome to. After all, what good does experience do if we don't share it?

  2. I am so glad this has clicked for you :-) just imagine how much more you can 'show' with every new experience you have. ...every time I'm singing in the rain I think of that movie, have you seen it?

    1. Surprisingly, I actually have seen that movie.

  3. Ah damn! Erik stole the reference from me. Viddy well, brother. Viddy, well. Pictionary is a great metaphor for this exercise, and it's a point that comes up often in my writer's group. Nice post, Shaun.

    1. As I've said, if you find anything I post on my blog useful, you're more than welcome to share it and use it. :-)

  4. If I feel as if I'm reading a newspaper rather than a novel, then the author is definitely telling much more than showing.

    I want to be on your team for Pictionary. You draw much better than I do.

    1. Lol. Thanks, but I didn't draw that. That's why I paint with words. As far as drawing goes, I'm still on stick figures.

  5. I'm reading Black Trillium at the moment and came across a good example last night on p272:
    "He shrugged, indicating that he did not know."
    "He shrugged" = showing.
    "indicating that he did not know." = telling.
    This is the worst, since it includes both! The second part is completely redundant - the shrug in answer to a question was both a more concise and interesting response than the clunky telling. It's important to let the readers do some work, inferring inner lives from outer actions.

    1. That is pretty bad. Some actions can be ambiguous, so a little telling might be required to ensure the reader understands it, but that is a good example of overkill.