What show don't tell writing actually means

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It's one of the first pieces of advice writers come across, but what does 'show, don't tell' actually mean? The technique will bring your creative writing to life and help readers to 'see' your story.

Rhetoric is a crucial element of the fiction writer’s craft. It's a simple enough concept to explain. Learning how to ‘do it’ – to write rhetorically – is another matter entirely. Similarly, 'show, don't tell' seems self-explanatory but what does it actually mean? Isn't all writing telling? How do you use written words to show anything? Read on and we'll show you how. (See what we did there?)

Rhetoric ought to be on your mind whenever you are at your desk, fingers aching as they hammer away at the keyboard, perspiration dripping from your brow, a pain jabbing above your eyes as you slave tirelessly away, a cruel sense of agony and despair churning your stomach as you begin to realise that the words filling the screen are gibberish.

More specifically, your struggle is using the right techniques, and words, to influence your reader. You will be stirring senses, emotions and intellects. In that rather long sentence I was doing just that – not brilliantly, admittedly, but in all likelihood you were imagining a writer having a rough time of it. I was helping to create an image in your mind, a not altogether positive one. I was influencing you. In other words I was using rhetoric.

It is not dissimilar to what a barrister does in court or a politician on the campaign trail. Both use language as persuasion: to make sure the jury find Bill Sykes guilty, your honour, or to win votes. Look at the examples below. Consider how the two examples relate to show and tell. Which do you think will win more votes?

Candidate 1:
I am against poverty. It is a terrible blight across this nation. If you vote for me you know I will do something about it.

Candidate 2:
For years I’ve been driving round my local community bringing hot meals to OAPs. Last week, I visited Mrs Jones. I found her shivering under a blanket, icicles hanging from her windows. ‘Don’t you worry,’ I reassured her, tears forming in my eyes as I held her trembling, arthritic hand. ‘When I’m elected, I’ll make sure pensioners never have to suffer like this again.’

Most of us would say the latter. The first is merely telling the audience a policy position. The second is showing the motive for this position. The speaker is using rhetoric to get the voter on his side by conjuring up an image of poor Mrs Jones. He is trying to stir emotions. As we are about to put a cross in a box an image of trembling, arthritic Mrs Jones might pass through our minds; whereas the generalised words of the first candidate will have been forgotten, lost in a welter of other such promises. The emotive politician has, by using the showing technique, planted something concrete in our minds. He has used one of the basic rules of persuasion: showing trumps telling. The specific has more traction than the general.

But what are you trying to persuade the reader of? You are trying to persuade them to believe in the fictional world you are creating. You are persuading them to form in their minds a semblance of what is in your imagination, the places, characters and intrigues of your story, as well as the accompanying gamut of emotions from fear through to love, loss, joy, hatred and despair, or whatever it is your protagonist/hero is going through.

The way you will be doing that is through rhetoric, just like our politician above. When planning a piece of creative writing, answer these questions: What do I want the reader to think and feel? What senses do I want to evoke?

 

What is the problem with 'tell' writing?

The problem with the general or telling mode is that you aren’t giving the reader much to grasp hold of. Compare these examples:

John was happy.

John beamed from ear to ear, his eyes sparkling with delight.

The first line doesn’t do much other than tell us of John’s state of mind; the second creates an image. Which do you think is more likely to gain traction with the reader? Which is the more likely to stick? I would argue that it is the latter.

The difference is between being told about somewhere and actually visiting. What would you prefer, a postcard from San Tropez or two weeks there? I think most of us would prefer being there: chatting with the locals over cocktails, sunshine caressing our cheeks, feeling the warm air lifting towards us off the pure blue ocean, strolling along a seemingly endless beach made of the softest, powdery sand.

The postcard (telling not showing) is fleeting and forgettable. But being there is real and meaningful.

Is it any wonder when a writer excels at his craft readers talk about being transported? You can’t physically pluck your reader from their armchair and take them to wherever it is you want them to go. But with persuasive language or rhetoric you will be able to give the impression of such, by stimulating the imagination.

‘Telling’ is comparatively dull, flat and uninvolving, no matter how intrinsically interesting the events; whereas showing will breathe life into your story. Imagine sitting in front of a TV set which is bereft of colour or tone, with only the occasional shadow drifting across the otherwise grey screen, and the only sound a repetitive white noise. That’s what reading a story can feel like when the writer has failed to deploy rhetoric.

As you write creatively, in your planning think about how you will be turning ‘telling’ into ‘showing’, how you will be moving away from the ‘general mode’ into the ‘specific mode’. Whenever you write a flat, lifeless sentence I want you to experience an inordinate amount of guilt and make hasty amends.

 

Is telling ever appropriate or useful?

There is no easy answer. It depends on what you are writing and the intended readership. In any narrative there will be occasions when telling instead of showing makes sense. A common weakness is to show something and in the next breath to tell the same, as if to underline the point in general terms. This can be patronising. If you are worried that the reader will not ‘get it’ then there are more creative ways to do this than offering simple declarative statements.

Showing too much can also be problematic – it can slow the pace to a tiresome plod. Imagine having to plough through several pages of lengthy description which serve only to establish a brief scene. Be selective in what you include. If there is content which serves no purpose in terms of developing character, theme, plot, or evoking a sense of time and place, it probably needs editing. You must be judicious, if not callous. If your vivid account of San Tropez at night seriously delays the actions of the characters then it might be necessary to cut it down – no matter how many hours or days you’ve slaved over it.

 

How do you actually show?

You may think you understand the idea of showing, not telling perfectly. Putting it into practice is another matter entirely. This makes sense. You wouldn’t expect a would-be brain surgeon to carry out a lobotomy after reading a few words of ‘how to’. It is the same with most elements of creative writing. The best way to learn is by doing.

Let’s look at an example of telling. We’ll then compare this to how the same can be shown and in doing so have a greater impact on your reader.

Ted was anxious. He had his driving test that morning.

Poor Ted, eh! These two sentences seem straightforward enough. They get across both the how and the why of Ted’s state of mind. This is only writing though. It is not creative writing. These two sentences do not work rhetorically. They lack the force of persuasion required of narrative fiction.

You might think it is readable enough, which it is. You might even be able to relate in some way to what you are being told. In all likelihood you will have had a driving test too and know how nerve-wracking it can be. It might get you thinking about what your own test, felt like. The writer of the above would hope so. He is hoping that shorthand will do the work for him. The writer is being negligent. Any effect is going to be superficial and more a matter of luck than technique. Imagine if such a simple ‘telling of the story’ extended across several pages. The likely outcome is boredom. There is no atmosphere or feeling to the writing. There is no direction. It relies too much on the reader having experienced the same; it lacks meaningful development.

Good literature will have you ‘walking in another’s shoes’, to borrow a cliché. It will have you seeing through another’s eyes; you will be encountering a different world to your own. It is one of the reasons why people read; to be transported. Writing at the calibre of ‘telling’ is very unlikely to succeed in this. I’d argue that the above two sentences are at best preliminary notes, how the writer plans to get across Ted’s nervousness.

It takes imagination to go from a bald statement (‘Ted was nervous’) to a piece of persuasive writing. There will be more to read. But if done well it will vastly increase the sense of immersion.

The standard method is to deploy the senses: touch, taste, smell, sound, sight.

Let’s see if we can evoke a sense of Ted’s anxiety by deploying at least two of the above. Remember the purpose is to bring the writing alive, to get across what it is like actually being there and to experience what your hero is feeling.

This is my effort:

A giant of a man in a yellow and black high-vis jacket glowered at Ted from behind the desk, thrusting a clipboard towards him. He boomed, ‘Your signature, Sir.’ Ted’s hands shook so much that he kept dropping the pen. Whenever he did so he heard a loud and distinctive tut. He scribbled his name so shakily that he had to wonder whether he’d be able to insert his key into the ignition. On handing the clipboard back he quivered, ‘keep that for when I’m famous...’

He gazed upwards in the vain hope of being comforted by a semblance of a smile but all he saw was a face as grey as mortar. The examiner had two bottomless pits where there should have been eyes, a deep scar crossing from the uppermost corner of his right cheek down to his lower lip. It brought to Ted’s stomach a sensation he usually experienced on the wildest of fairground rides, like he was being swept right and left, upside down and inside out, as the car bumped along its rickety tracks. A horrid caustic taste of digested breakfast bubbled up his oesophagus and made him burp. The smell of dead pig meat lingered in the air between them. The examiner shifted his bulk disgustedly away, and Ted followed shamefully to the waiting Fiat Uno, with so little sensation in his legs that he began to lose balance. His shoes crunched across the gravel pathway, each footstep as loud as a gunshot.

Okay, that’s not going to win prizes. But hopefully you can see that I’m employing four of the senses. The primary one is sight, which is fairly typical when writing fiction. Doing so almost always involves creating a picture in words. Three other senses – sound, smell and taste – are used as support. Touch could easily have been included as well. I felt the description risked becoming too heavy, but the ‘bald’ statement of Ted’s nervousness has certainly been developed. I’ve been creative in other words. I’ve used my imagination.

As you become more confident in your abilities, you will find that showing rather than telling is fun. It requires that you engage your mind as you sculpt a scene, which can be as rewarding as solving a crossword puzzle.

Ted’s anxiety over his test now seems more real. The original was flat, without craft, while this version is engaging. As a reader, I would want to know how the test went for Ted. The writing would get me on his side. It would make me feel, momentarily, that I was with him at the test centre.

When you get the hang of it a short piece of the above quality can be done within minutes. It’s all about allowing your imagination to flow, going beyond shallow statements such as ‘Ted was worried about his driving test’ or ‘Molly was madly in love with Mike’.

Before putting words on the page, it will help if you are clear about the emotions you want to convey. What is the nature of the situation you hope to get across? Is it joyful, miserable, fearful etcetera? How do you hope to influence the reader? What do you want them to think and feel? Write down bald statements (‘Lucy was downhearted’) and then work these into a piece of engaging prose which shows rather than tells.

It’s your turn now!

Flesh out at least one of the examples below and in doing so use at least two of the senses. Develop these statements (telling) by using at least one of the five senses (showing).

• Jane was angry.

• It was the happiest day ever.

• It was love at first sight.

• Malcolm felt proud of his achievement. He hated her.

 

How well did you do? If it was a struggle then don’t worry. Like any skill it takes time and effort to learn. You may think that it is easier said than done, and to an extent you are right. Becoming proficient won’t come overnight. The more you do it the better you will get though. And remember: try to relax, be calm, allow your imagination to blossom, your ideas to flow. If you suffer brain ache go away, do something different, and come back to it later.

Also, you will find that you don’t need to overdo it – you don’t need to evoke all the senses on every page. It really depends on what you are writing. There may be long sections where you can take your foot off the sensory pedal and others when you need to press down hard – it all depends on what is happening, how you are trying to influence the reader.

 

So now you know how to show, not tell, but do you know how to write a good sentence?