What’s all this “show, don’t tell” stuff about?
Ian Smith, ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor
Having a twice-daily commute of around fifty minutes, I’m in the habit of listening to audiobooks. I think I listen to more books than I read.
Given my other options of (a) road noise, (b) talking to myself, (c) overly-enthusiastic breakfast show presenters, or (d) politicians trying not to answer questions, audiobooks are a pleasant default choice.
Assuming the narrator works for me, of course, but that’s a different matter.
I recently listened to Audible’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, very nicely narrated by Stephen Fry, which runs for almost 72 hours. Four novels and five collections of short stories, with personal introductions by Mr Fry, a life-long Holmes enthusiast.
I’d never read any Sherlock Holmes, so I was curious to see what they were like.
All but one were written in the first person from Watson’s point of view, supposedly describing their escapades years after the events, reconstructed from memories, notes and records kept at the time. The other was written in the first person from Holme’s point of view.
Among the things which struck me was the way the stories reflect some of the changes in society over the time-span covered by the books, such as telegrams being replaced by telephones.
But most writers will know what I mean when I say that what struck me very clearly was that these stories can be described as “tell, don’t show”.
The earlier ones in particular seemed to follow this pattern:
1) someone turns up and presents them with a puzzle;
2) Holmes rushes off to solve it, leaving Watson to amuse himself;
3) Holmes returns to Baker Street and explains it all to Watson.
Although this approach results in snappy short stories, I didn’t exactly find them engaging.
Inevitably, there’s no shortage of books written (at least in part) to make money for authors telling other authors how to “show, don’t tell”. Attributed to Chekov, the idea was popularised by Percy Lubbock in his 1921 book The Craft of Fiction, which drew both criticism and praise from established writers.
I think the wikipedia entry for “Show, don’t tell” explains it rather well:
“Show, don’t tell is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. It avoids adjectives describing the author’s analysis, but instead describes the scene in such a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.”
Of course, Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories around a century ago, when writing styles were rather different. Although it’s a long while since I read HG Wells, I recall War of the Worlds and The Time Machine were rather heavy on the narrative story-telling and light on insights into the characters’ experiences.
I think Emma Darwin, in her thisitchofwriting blog, has captured the idea nicely:
SHOWING is for making the reader FEEL they’re in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. … we persuade the reader to read the story we’re telling AS IF it really happened, even though we all know it didn’t. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat.
TELLING is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator … It’s supplying information: the storyteller saying “Once upon a time”, or “A volunteer army was gathered together”, … it’s a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment.
Here’s a single example:
The parties were dazzling and opulent. They spilled out of the house, into the garden and even the beach.
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.
Now, which one works better for you as a reader? The factual one, or the more colourful and descriptive one?
No points for guessing which one F Scott Fitzgerald used to describe the parties in The Great Gatsby.
I believe Hemingway was notable for his “show don’t tell” style, but I must admit I’ve not read any of his work. One of my mild rebellious tendencies is to avoid anything people tell me I “must” do.
The style relies on the reader being able to imagine the character’s experience. If the writer can get it right, they don’t need to include all the nitty-gritty details, as the reader will readily fill in the gaps using their own imagination.
I’ve only posted one review on Amazon for a book I didn’t actually finish. It’s also the worst review I’ve posted, and the headline was:
“The title is the best thing about this story. Interesting enough story idea, poorly written.”
No, I won’t share the title here… but feel free to ask privately.
The book is nominally 327 pages, but I only managed two chapters. There was one line of dialogue in those two chapters, short and wooden. The bits I read were all tell and no show. Straight “tell”, with no effort to even describe what the characters were thinking. As far as I could tell, the blurb summarised the entire storyline, so I had a good idea of what I missed out on.
Obviously, we can mix “show and tell” in our writing in a way to help us tell our story. Sometimes an infodump or a section of narrative keeps things ticking along, keeping your reader’s attention until the next scene, incident or event. But you can always use a character to help “show” your fictional world in science fiction, fantasy, or even historical stories, by persuading the reader to see this world through the character’s senses.
In the end, it’s something you can use in your writing as much or as little as you want.
It’s your story, after all.
Even today, this approach has its critics. In 2017, Cecilia Tan argued in Uncanny Magazine that the common writing advice to “show, don’t tell” is both a cliché and an inherently colonialist idea.
Or, if you enjoy an entertaining conspiracy theory, you might like to think about the suggestion that “show, don’t tell” was propaganda funded by the CIA during the Cold War.
Like all these writing rules, “show don’t tell” has its place.
You want to tell your story as well as possible, after all.