Show, Don’t Tell

What it Means, Why it Matters – and How to Add Drama to Your Novel

“Show, Don’t Tell” is one of the oldest pieces of advice to new writers, but it can be kinda confusing.

What exactly is the difference between Showing and Telling? And is “Showing” always right? And is Telling always wrong?

As we’ll see, “Show, Don’t Tell” is good advice in certain circumstances. Not just good advice, in fact, but absolutely essential to any half-decent novel.

At the same time, virtually every novel ever written contains passages that are told, not shown . . . and that’s fine. You just have to understand which mode of writing to use where.

These things get confusing when spoken about in the abstract, so we’ll use plenty of examples to show you exactly what’s what.

Sounds good? Then let’s motor.

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Show, Don’t Tell: what this actually means

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass,’ Anton Chekhov once advised.

Here’s an example of what he means:

Telling:
The night was cold and moonlit. The sleigh moved fast through the forest.

Showing:
Ekaterina was shocked by the cold. She’d known winters before, but never this far north and never this deep. Burrowed under furs as she was, she still felt her eyelashes freeze. There were crystals of ice on her face where her own breath had frozen solid. It was a clear night, and they raced through the whispering pines, like a feather drawn over a sheet of silver. It seemed magical. Impossible. Temporary. Forbidden.

What do you notice?

You’ll instantly notice a number of things here.

Telling

  • Is factual.
  • Is brief.
  • Is an efficient way to communicate data.
  • Prefers to avoid detail, and is happy to convey broad overarching messages. (“It was cold.”)
  • Is not necessarily human-centred, and as a result . . .
  • Does not, in general, stir the heart.

Showing

  • Is human-centred (usually, though sometimes only by implication).
  • Is a slower, richer, more expansive way to communicate.
  • Is not efficient – quite the reverse!
  • Loves detail
  • Tends to place the human subject right at the centre of things, and as a consequence . .
  • Can often stir the heart.

You want another example? OK, try this:

Telling

The parties were dazzling and opulent. They spilled out of the house, into the  garden and even the beach.

Showing

In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. … The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing up-stairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive … floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside … the lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.

You want to guess which method Scott Fitzgerald used to describe the parties in The Great Gatsby? I’ll give you a clue: it wasn’t the first of those ways.

One more example – this one a little bit more extended. The example here comes from my own book, The Deepest Grave, which I’ve chosen just to make the point that these rules and disciplines apply to all of us. To Scott Fitzgerald. To me. To you.

So, here’s one more example, as before given in in two possible versions.

Telling

Bowen, Katie and FIona find a sheet of vellum in an old Welsh church.

Showing

Bowen lifts the 1953 fish-restaurant newspaper out of the wooden wall box.

‘I suppose that can go.’

He looks glumly at the mess behind the cupboard, knowing that it’ll be his job to clean it. Katie looks into the box, now missing its newspaper floor.

Glances once, then looks more sharply.

‘No, that’s not right,’ she says, and starts picking at the bottom with a fingernail.

I already looked under the newspaper and saw just the pale, bleached colour of old pine – pine that has never seen the sun – but that was me being dumb. Me not knowing how to see.

Katie picks at the bottom and it comes away.

A sheet of paper, blank on the upper side, but with writing in clear purplish-black ink on the lower.
Latin text.

A hard-to-read medieval hand.

Bowen stares. I stare. We all stare.

‘Katie,’ I say, ‘This paper? We can get it dated, presumably?’

In the gluey light, she shakes her head.

‘No. No, we can’t.’

‘We can’t?’

There’s something about this light, this thickened silence which makes everything seem slow, unnatural.

‘We can’t test this paper, because it isn’t paper. It’s vellum. A dead sheep, basically, scraped clean and stretched out thin.’

She takes the vellum and places it under the best of the light.

I’ve given you quite an extended chunk of ‘showing’ here because quoting at length makes a few further points very clear.

As well as everything we’ve said so far, Showing:

  • Is dramatic – it’s story told as drama. You could actually imagine the long-form version of the scene above as something played out on a stage or in a movie. Literally every time that you could imagine a piece of writing as a stage or movie play, you are reading something that is shown not told.
  • Often involves dialogue. It’s no coincidence. Movies involve actors saying their lines – and again, literally every time you encounter proper dialogue in a book, you are reading a scene that is shown, not told.
  • Plays out in real time. Take a look one more time at those two passages just above. The first – basically “three people find vellum” – isn’t real time at all. There’s no sense of elapsed time there at all. It’s told like a news report on CNN or the BBC. In the extended passage – the one from my actual book – you could imagine a clock on the wall, counting out the seconds as the scene  elapsed. If you had to make a guess at how long it took from Bowen fishing out the newspaper to Katie finding the vellum, you could actually make a reasonable guess.

These thoughts lead us to the next massive point you have to know about the whole showing / telling thing:

Namely, why people get so obsessed by it.

Show, Don’t Tell: Why it matters

People get obsessed with showing vs telling. Here’s the reason why.

OK. Here’s a question for you:

Why do readers read books?

That’s a real question, and you should think about your answer.

If you think about it, you’ll probably give me some answer like:

Readers want to get involved in a story.

They want to experience emotion through the lives and adventures of fictional characters.

They want to get swept up in other people’s dramas.

And yes. Exactly.

And to immerse ourselves in the experiences of those characters, we need to feel them as the characters themselves feel them – which is real time, minute by minute.

That’s the whole deal right there.

If you want to get your readers emotionally engaged, you have to plunge them into the drama of the moment. It would be no good Jane Austen telling us that “D’Arcy proposed to Lizzy Bennet and Lizzy said no.”

The whole reason we read Pride & Prejudice is to be with Lizzy as she experiences that first (awful) proposal. To feel her emotions and reactions almost second by second as she goes through that scene.

Readers always experience the closest emotional contact with their character during scenes that are shown, rather than via facts that are simply reported.

As a matter of fact, I don’t particularly like the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra for two reasons, the first of which is that Henry James phrased the whole thing better:

“Dramatise! Dramatise! Dramatise!”

That’s so easy and so clear. If you have a patch of writing that seems a little low energy – a little blank, a little dull – then just let those commandments echo in your head.

Are you writing the kind of scene that could appear in a movie? If so, great! Just make the scene better.

Or are you writing the kind of thing that sounds like somebody reporting on a scene that they saw in a movie? In which case, tear up your writing and start again.

If anything important happens in your book, that thing has to be related dramatically. That is, via a scene, told real time, with your characters moving about – talking, acting, reacting, feeling – and experiencing the events moment by moment.

Those scenes are all, always, shown not told.

Those scenes are what keep your readers reading your novel. Your novel should be formed almost completely of such scenes.

By this point, you’re probably thinking, “Ah, OK, I’ve got this. I see why this is so important. I gotta remember never to tell stuff, and always to show stuff.”

And that’s what some people think. And what some writing tutors teach.

And they’re all wrong. Stick with me, and I’ll tell you why.

Show, Don’t Tell: Why this rule is sometimes just plain wrong

So far in this post, we’ve looked at – and preferred – examples of writing that were shown rather than told.

We’ve said that showing is more dramatic and more engaging. It’s the way we plunge our readers into the drama of our story. It’s our basic method for getting them to experience the emotions of our characters.

And that’s all true. But right at the start of this post, I also said:

Telling

  • Is factual.
  • Is brief.
  • Is an efficient way to communicate data.

And hold on – those things can be good as well as bad, right?

So, sure, if we have some crucial scene – D’Arcy proposing to Lizzy Bennet, or my gang of Bowen, Katie and Fiona finding some vellum in a church – then you have to show that scene, not merely report the action.

But let’s say, you have a line in your book that says:

“Years passed and during that time Yulia hardly ever thought of the incident again. It was gone. It belonged in some past life,to some past self. She was busy now with other things. Only then, one bright, clear day in March . . .”

That’s telling, right? It’s the narrator just reporting stuff, not showing it.

And according to the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra, telling is bad.

BUT IT ISN’T!

Telling is the wrong way to deliver dramatic scenes (which should, of course, compose the vast bulk of your novel), but it can be great way to deliver information that is essential to your story, but of no great dramatic consequence.

So take that “years passed” passage above. How would you even go about showing all that? Would you really have Yulia waking up day after day, month after month, and year after year, NOT thinking about whatever that past incident was?

Sure, that would be showing not telling . . . but you’d be crazy to do it that way. No one ever would.

In short:

If you have essential factual information to deliver, and that information has no dramatic interest in its own right, then just tell it. Don’t try to show it, because you’ll slow your book right down – and probably kill it.

Showing is for drama (and your book should be mostly drama.)

Telling is for the efficient delivery of all the non-dramatic information your book requires.

The way I usually think about it is that my dramatic scenes are the stones in my wall, but for the wall to hold together, to be intact, it needs a little bit of mortar too. The mortar is the glue that holds all the good stuff together.

Yes, there’s a lot more stone than mortar in the wall.

Showing and telling: you always need both.

Showing and telling: an extended example

How showing and telling work in an actual book

OK. So we know that our scenes are going to be mostly shown: that is, played out real time, with moment-by-moment action and – in most cases – with plenty of dialogue too.

We also know that the reader needs some facts to make sense of the drama, and those facts are most efficiently just told to the reader. Communicated efficiently, without any attempt at drama.

What follows is the opening scene from my book, The Deepest Grave.

This scene – like pretty much any scene in pretty much any book – makes use of both showing and telling. The reader doesn’t encounter any big shock as the narration moves from one mode to the other. Quite the opposite: unless you are focusing on the issue specifically, you’d never notice the switch.

So I’m going to leave all the SHOWING text in ordinary script. Anything that is TOLD is written in blue. The bits in square brackets are my explanation to you of what’s going on. Obviously (duh!) those square brackety bits don’t appear in the actual book.

So, here it is. The opening scene from The Deepest Grave. I’ve edited the scene lightly, just to make it that bit shorter. The narrator is Fiona Griffiths, a Welsh detective.

Cardiff, March 2016.

Jon Breakell has just completed his chef d’oeuvre, his masterpiece. The Mona Lisa of office art.

The masterpiece in question is a dinosaur made of bulldog clips, twisted biro innards and a line of erasers that Jon has carved into spikes.

‘There,’ he says.

Stands back. Inspects.

‘Do you think it needs claws?’ he asks. ‘Paperclips maybe?’

He starts to break paperclips into spikes. Tries to figure out the claw conundrum.

Foolish boy. Complacent child.

As Jon—head down, attention buried—works with his paperclips, I get out the Great Crossbow of Doom, as Jon himself christened it. The Great Crossbow involves no fewer than six rubber bands, the really thick, strong sort, and it uses, for its shaft and crosspiece, an entire boxful of pencils taped together. The thing is a bit bendier than it ought to be, but it can still fire the little metal edge-piece stolen from the office whiteboard more than thirty feet across the room, and Jon’s desk stands a lot closer than that. [This is telling. It’s Fiona just delivering information essential to the reader’s understanding of what’s going on.]

He fixes his paperclip spikes into a bulldog clip and gently attaches them to his only slightly tottering dinosaur. There’s a moment of serious wobble where it looks like the whole thing might collapse, but Jon adjusts a grip somewhere and the edifice stabilises.

‘There!’ he says, genuinely proud.

And, fair dos, that pride is justified. This hasn’t been the first dinosaur he’s constructed, but it’s easily the biggest and certainly the best. It’s taken him all morning to get this far.

But I am a hunter and my heart has no mercy.

I load the Great Crossbow of Doom and pull it back till the pencils groan against the walls of their sticky tape prison. Jon half-turns to me, wanting, I think, to harvest the praise that is his due.

Turns enough that he sees what happens next.

The Crossbow straining to its uttermost. A quick release. The whiteboard edge-piece flying through the air and striking Jon’s tyrannosaur in its unprotected belly. An explosion of metal stationery and spiked erasers. The edge-piece falling to the floor, its deadly mission complete.

‘Fi!’ says Jon. ‘Fuck’s sake.’

‘It’s the Great Crossbow of Doom,’ I explain. ‘It’s doomy.’

‘Fuck’s sake,’ Jon says again, down on his knees now, finding bits of lost tyrannosaur under his desk.

And that’s how we are—me, Jon, the bones of the fallen—when Dennis Jackson comes in.

Dennis Jackson, my boss. The detective chief inspector who presides over our happy breed, this little world. A world that is, theoretically, devoted to the investigation and prosecution of major crime, except that the good citizens of Cardiff are too tame, too meek, too unimaginatively law-abiding to generate much crime worthy of the ‘major’ dignity. [More information. More telling. The reader needs to know who this new character is, so Fiona just delivers the necessary data.]

‘What the bloody hell is going on?’

I twang my crossbow. ‘Maintaining order, sir. My duty and my pleasure.’

Jackson bites his thumb. He has the look of a man meditating some tedious comment about how the construction and demolition of dinosaurs is not what Jon and I are paid to do.

He doesn’t say that, though even thinking it is tedious.

Instead, he fingers the wodge of paper on my desk.  [. . .] He takes a bit of paper from the stack by the printer and fiddles around in my pen-holder mug, one that I was given by the office secret Santa in December. On one side the mug says ‘GRAMMAR POLICE’ and on the other, ‘WARNING. I am silently correcting your grammar.’ When I was given the mug, it came with black insulating tape over the word ‘silently’.

Jackson finds a biro and scribbles till the ink flows. Then he writes:

16 March, 2016
Gaynor Charteris
RIP

I say, ‘Gaynor Charteris. What, a coroner’s inquest thing?’

That’s not good English—my own internal grammar copper is already stripping down and refitting that sentence—but Jackson knows what I mean. I mean that any unexplained death needs to be examined by a coroner and plenty of those deaths require some form of police involvement, however sketchy. I don’t count those things as a proper murder case, however, and Jackson knows it. [Is this telling? I think it probably is. Again, we’re looking at the efficient and swift delivery of information needed by the reader.]

Jackson says, ‘Yes, there will need to be a coroner’s inquest, of course.’

‘OK, let me guess. Some granny slipped on the stairs and we need to confirm there were no suspicious circumstances.’

‘Well, I don’t yet know much about the incident, but I understand that, yes, there were some circumstances that do possibly seem suspicious.’

My face moves. An involuntary thing. I don’t know what it says, what it signifies.

I just about manage to speak, though, and what I find myself saying is, ‘Suspicious circumstances, sir? I mean, what? An open window, something missing, that kind of thing?’

‘Well, I don’t know about the windows. That part hasn’t been reported to me. But the uniformed officer currently attending the scene did say that this woman appears to have been beheaded. I daresay there’ll need to be some further forensic work needed before we can be certain, but it appears that the weapon of choice was an antique broadsword. It’s obviously early days, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that no, Gaynor Charteris probably did not slip on any stairs. And I’d appreciate it, please, if—Jon, Fiona—the pair of you could act like a pair of grown-up, professional detectives and get your arses over to the scene without fucking anything up or making me want to strangle you.’

He hasn’t even finished his speech, before I have my jacket on, bag over my shoulder, keys in my hand.

And there you go.

That balance of showing and telling is pretty much representative of my own books, but also of fiction in general. Nearly every novel you care to read will have a similar balance running through it. (One big exception: literary fiction tends to have much more telling. The telling is elegantly done, however.)

You’ll also often find that you tend to get telling at the start of a chapter: information laid down to prepare you for the scene that’s about to come. The thin line of mortar needed before you lay the next stone.

So next time you hear “Show, Don’t tell”, remember:

  • Yes, you should mostly show stuff – that is, set it out dramatically, as though on a stage or in a movie
  • Yes, that drama is the essence of all great fiction
  • But no, the idea you should never tell is just hogwash.

Showing and telling? You need them both. They both have their jobs to do – and now you know what they are, you can be sure of doing them right.

Happy writing, and thanks for stopping by.

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