I recently put together a list of examples for a Show, Don’t Tell topic for my writing group, and thought I’d share them here for my own reference and other people to enjoy:
We all know what it is: Telling the reader something, when you could show it instead. I’ve heard this advice a zillion times, but it’s taken a long time for me to see it clearly in my writing because it can often be buried – not only in words, but our excuses as well. I have often told myself: Oh, that’s supposed to be like that, etc.
Today I know how to recognise it in my writing and how telling could be a few carefully crafted words, a few sentences, or many chapters, or, in extreme cases, the entire story! Which is probably the complete opposite to using Metaphor, now I think about it. The best way to identify these little sods and weed them out is with plenty of examples. So without further ado; here’s the most commonly chimed quote on Show, Don’t Tell, you’ll ever find:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
– Anton Chekhov
Great isn’t it? Bless AC and all his talent. Here’s some more examples:
Example 2: Telling
“Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take..”
Example 2: Showing
“The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”
Good hey? Discuss. Clue: Be specific! Another…
Example 3 – Telling
Char 1: ‘Are you coming out tonight?’
Char 2: ‘No, I don’t have any money.’
Example 3 – Showing
Char 1: ‘Are you coming out tonight?’
Char 2: … puts their hand in their pocket and feels around at the fluff and dust, ‘No. I don’t feel like it.’
In Example 3 you see the difference between what Char 2 is saying and thinking. This is insightful for the reader and ultimately more satisfying because readers are being allowed to come to their own conclusion about why the char doesn’t want to go.
Look at how Char 2’s motives change when the line reads:
Example 3 – Showing v2
Char 2: … puts their hand in their pocket, feels the elastic band around the roll of twenty-pound notes and says ‘No. I don’t have any money.’
Now we know the Char 2 is lying. This informs the scene and makes it ultimately more rewarding for the reader.
Chuck Palahniuk’s popular advice to writers
You may not use “thought” verbs*. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use. *at least for the next year.
Palahniuk argues that writers who rely on these verbs, rob themselves of the opportunity to describe an abstraction or feeling fully. source
Also be wary of abstract nouns
Love, Anger, Hate, Delight, Despair, Hope etc, eg:
Abstract Noun Example 4 – Telling
‘She felt happy that she’d overcome her fear, and she now entered the ward with no trepidation.’
Abstract Noun Example 4 – Showing
‘The ward had a less gloomy cast to it, now. She no longer dawdled in the medics’ lounge but eagerly set about her rounds and her bright presence had an uplifting effect on even the gravely ill.’
Avoid the intrusive narrator
Let your characters do the talking, instead of you the writer telling us about them, eg:
Example 5: Intrusive narrator – Telling
‘Sara is a woman of about 28. A recently qualified doctor who’s afraid of the tougher side of the profession.’
Example 5 intrusive narrator – Showing
‘The memory of descending the stairs in the graduation hall while her parents beamed from the fourth row was still fresh. But she knew larger challenges were approaching and she had to brace herself.’
This, I’ve found is one of the hardest to illustrate for new writers, because they confuse it with their narrative voice or author’s voice. Often experience is what we writers need, so just get on with it and don’t have a panic attack (yet). If in doubt: it’s probably wrong, so ask someone more qualified than your mum or mates.
Focus on the purpose of each scene
Use cause and effect to illustrate a transformation of the character, eg:
Example 6: Telling the character effect
She overcame her fear of heights.
Example 6: Showing with cause and effect:
Instead: write about the trial and error stages she went through to overcome that fear.
In this example, I’m assuming that her fear of heights is key to the story, if it isn’t, and it’s trivial, one can either remove it entirely, or stretch it out over many chapters. It could also thread through the entire story and be the transformational arc of the character!
Problems with Show, Don’t Tell
Writers are commonly told:
Don’t use several words when one will do. This advice has been encouraged because new writers tend to waffle and/or try too hard to write in a writerly way.
The opposite is (almost) true for Show, don’t Tell. It is very rare a writer is able to ‘show’ using fewer words than ‘telling’. Remember the famous 6 word novel/flash-fiction: For sale, Baby shoes, never worn’? (there’s no evidence that Hemmingway wrote it, btw) well, we all dream to be as succinct and concise as that. I’m sure I would have written pages to convey the same meaning!
Identifying ‘telling’ so you can replace it with ‘showing’ is a skill in itself.
Telling in fiction isn’t all bad, and has some benefits. For example when you want to convey something important but don’t want to deviate from the action. Or even writing for younger readers, there’s nothing wrong with ‘telling’ them what you want their attention to be focusing on. JK Rowling happily did it in the Harry Potter series. The skill is in know when to do it and when not, or when you’re doing it too much or too little.
Ursula K. Le Guin doesn’t always agree…
The esteemed, multi-award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin disagrees strongly with applying ‘show don’t tell’ as a blanket writing rule. Le Guin explains why this isn’t advice to follow doggedly:
Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. (I make them read the first chapter of The Return of the Native, a description of a landscape, in which absolutely nothing happens until in the last paragraph a man is seen, from far away, walking along a road. If that won’t cure them nothing will.)
- Use it when necessary
- Be wary of the abstract
- Be specific
- Avoid the intrusive narrator
- Focus on the purpose of the scene
Mark Mapstone is a skateboarder, a writer, and author of the Ethan Wares Skateboard Series books.
Follow Mark on Instagram: @7plywood
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