Forget Show and Tell

photo by Jeff Smith

by Lynda Nash

That old adage ‘show don’t tell’ is the bane of many a beginner writer’s life. ‘I’d like to write more descriptively, but I’m scared I’ll do too much telling,’ my student Daisy said, ‘so I’m making myself write lots of dialogue to do more showing.’

Dear Daisy’s fear of ‘telling’ is strangling her creativity. By trying to apply a so-called rule, her prose is in danger of becoming stilted. In creative writing there are no ‘rules’ but there are skills, which can help you become a better writer. So let’s consign the word ‘rule’ to Writing Room 101 and think in terms of ‘techniques’. The only rule you need to remember is: never follow a technique off a cliff.

Let’s start at the beginning…
Since the formation of language, human beings have ‘told’ stories. Story ‘telling’ is an oral activity. To tell is to narrate, relate, speak, inform, report.

But tell has fallen into disrepute and writers, like Daisy, spend hours trying to avoid it. When we write we tell tales, we can’t avoid it. Orally or on paper we are still participating in the act of ‘telling’ and therefore we cannot throw the word into Writing Room 101. Because the mishandling of the word ‘tell’ has Daisy in a lather, let’s now call the ‘Show Don’t Tell’ technique simply, ‘Show’.

To cause or allow to be seen; to become visible.

A show at an art gallery or fashion house or on TV is a visual entity. Words on paper are visual — we can see them on the page — but their meanings and implications are not. Take the word ‘Big’, for instance: ‘he was a big man’. Big is an abstract concept. My idea of Big will not be the same as Daisy’s, whose won’t be the same as Polly’s, so it’s up to the writer to show what ‘Big’ looks like. The man was a mountain; he took up two seats on the train. In a few words, the writer has given us a visual – we can now see the man with his bulk spreading out taking up extra space. We cannot toss ‘show’ into Writing Room 101, but we can change it to ‘visualise’.

Let’s look at a scenario. Susan is in love with Bill but Bill’s ex-girlfriend, Veronica, is jealous. She kidnaps Susan and traps her in a derelict house. The narration is from Veronica’s point of view.

It was cold in the room; ice had formed on the inside of the windows. I could see that Susan was freezing. My coat barely kept me warm and I wished I’d put a jumper on.

Okay… there’s nothing wrong with Veronica telling us the room was cold, but perhaps she could have been a little more descriptive:

The room was like a bloody walk-in freezer. All that was needed were pig and sheep carcasses hanging on hooks from the ceiling.

Though maybe Veronica doesn’t verbalise that way. Perhaps she’s never been in a walk-in freezer. Her narrative should reflect her personality.

ice had formed on the inside of the windows. Nice of Veronica to give us a visual. She could have added a little more detail if she’d wanted to – ice had formed on the inside of the cracked window pane that was thick with grime.

I could see that Susan was freezing. But what can Veronica see? Why does she think Susan is freezing? Is Susan naked? Is she shivering? Has she turned blue? We only have Veronica’s opinion that Susan is freezing, but is her opinion reliable? Veronica needs to show us. Give us a visual, Veronica, let us make up our own minds.

Veronica could say:

I could tell Susan was cold, she pulled her flimsy crocheted cardigan around her and hugged her bare knees.

OR: Susan’s skin had developed a blue tinge and the sound of her teeth chattering got on my nerves.

Again, this depends on Veronica’s temperament.

My coat barely kept me warm and I wished I’d put a jumper on.

Nothing inherently wrong with this sentence, but Veronica might have told us what coat she had on: my thin nylon Macintosh barely kept me warm. Or is Veronica the type of person who wears a denim jacket, or a mink? The devil’s in the detail. We don’t need to know what jumper Veronica wished she’d put on, unless it adds to the story:

I wished I’d put on the cashmere jumper Bill bought me for my birthday – that would have bugged Susan.

Anyway, when Bill gets word that his beloved Susan is being held captive, he races to the rescue.

Bill walked into the room with a gun and aimed it at Veronica.

Did he? Oh well…

This sentence includes the facts but has no emotional impact: we cannot see what mood Bill is in, what gun he carries (it could be a water-pistol for all we know), or which part of Veronica he aims it at. Again we need visuals. And don’t give us: Bill walked into the room angrily. Or Bill walked into the room: he was angry. because we won’t believe you until we see it ourselves.

Bill walked into the room. How did he walk? Did he march? Did he tiptoe, skip or amble? With a gun – a rifle, a handgun, a sawn-off shotgun? He aimed it at Veronica – at her head, her feet, her stomach? Now you get it. Strong verbs and specific detail are the key.

Bill stomped through the doorway and aimed the Colt 45 at Veronica’s head.

Now we can see what he’s doing.

Okay, we’ve established that ‘showing’ is supplying the reader with visual cues and specific details so they can form a picture in their heads and come to their own conclusions. Back to Daisy’s dialogue. Dialogue, though written, is still the spoken word and in itself doesn’t ‘show’. It cannot carry the weight of visual cues and nor should it have the need.

The purpose of dialogue is to add realism; readers want characters to act like real people, and real people speak. Dialogue is not a vehicle to impart information, as in: ‘Remember when we went to Brussels in our father’s car and our Aunty Mabel lost her knickers and called the police?’

Let’s go back to Bill…

Bill stomped through the doorway. ‘You trollop,’ he yelled. ‘I knew I couldn’t trust you.’ He aimed the Colt 45 at Veronica’s forehead and pulled the trigger.

If a writer were to show everything, the result would be a word count off the scale and very bored readers. It is perfectly okay to say, Veronica went to the shop and bought a pint of milk, if this is not an important event. If she goes to the shop for milk and gets arrested for stealing the milk then readers will want pictures – this is imperative in scene writing: scenes contain the story’s action and action should be visual.

Two tips:
1) ‘Was’, ‘Am’ and other derivatives of the verb ‘to be’ are an indication (not an absolute) that you need to add visuals and details, as in: He is grumpy / I was hot.

2) Staying in a character’s point of view (first person or third, it makes no difference) and avoiding authorial intrusion, will help keep your fiction focussed and help you to paint pictures with your prose.


Some helpful acronyms:
RUE = Resist the Urge to Explain
FAD = Feeling, Action, Dialogue
CAP  = Create A Picture
SIP = Stay In Point of view
VAD = Visual And Details


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