Show . . . and Tell

The great Russian author Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

chekhov

 

In a single sentence, Chekhov illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of good writing, something so ingrained in writers as to be self-evident; a core principle so universally accepted, acknowledged as truth, it is generally regarded as beyond debate . . .

“Show.  Don’t tell.”

donttell

 

I can’t even count how many times I’ve encountered that piece of writer’s advice in my lifetime.  In nearly every essay or book or column on creative writing, “show, don’t tell” is right at the top of the list.  And rightfully so.  To be able to transport a reader, an author must be able to paint word-pictures that are crisp, clear, vivid–images that resonate and stick in the mind long after the page is turned.

showdonttell

 

Consider the following example from The Grass Harp.  Here, in the story’s second paragraph, master wordsmith Truman Capote’s descriptions are so vivid, you are immediately placed in the world of his imagination . . .

grassharp

 

“If on leaving town you take the church road you soon will pass a glaring hill of bonewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers: this is the Baptist cemetery.  Our people, Talbos, Fenwicks, are buried there; my mother lies next to my father, and the graves of kinfolk, twenty or more, are around them like the prone roots of a stony tree.  Below the hill lies a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”

Reading a paragraph like that, the words and images are not soon forgotten.  It is Capote’s tremendous gift of language and style, and his ability to “show and not just tell,” that turns the trick.  The imagery is so vivid, it is as if he has taken a photograph and placed it in the margins of the page.  Close your eyes and imagine the field of high grass, the blades swaying in the autumn wind . . .

indiangrass

 

And yet . . . for all its merit, “show, don’t tell,” is only half-true.

*********

At the end of chapter 8 in The Eye-Dancers, soon after arriving in the variant town of Colbyville, Mitchell Brant meets a girl by the name of Heather.  Red-faced and tongue-tied around girls, his speech impediment made worse than ever due to nerves, Mitchell is shocked when she calls him cute.  As the chapter ends, he watches her walk away, thinking about what has just transpired . . .

blushing

 

“He just stood there, gaping after her.  Thoughts of the ghost girl, of getting back home to his mom and dad and sister were ten billion miles away.

“‘Cutie.’ She had called him ‘cutie.’

“For a second, one beautiful moment in time, he felt like a hero, like the guys at school who all the pretty girls wanted.

“He wished the feeling would last, linger like a sweet aftertaste.  But he knew it wouldn’t.  Not for him.  Not for the dork who couldn’t talk right.

“Not for Mitchell Brant.”

If you were to analyze this passage through a strict lens of “show, don’t tell,” it would fail miserably.  There is a lot of telling going on here.  We are told that, for a brief moment, Mitchell feels like a hero and wishes the feeling will last–though, ultimately, he realizes that it won’t.  But I would argue it is precisely this quality that sets the printed page apart from the Silver Screen.

silverscreen

 

In a movie or a television episode, the creators are forced to show, all the time.  Unless there is a voice-over, there can be no “telling” in a movie.  In the excerpt above, if The Eye-Dancers were to be made into a film (I can dream, can’t I?), maybe we would see Mitchell reaching after Heather’s retreating figure, grabbing a fistful of air.  Maybe his expression, initially, would tell us that he is basking in her compliment.  But then, with a twitch of the mouth, a downturn of the face, a shake of the head, the actor playing Mitchell would convey his sense that nothing could ever come of it, that the pretty girl he’d just met would never really be interested in him.

Maybe.  But even if this happens, it wouldn’t be with the same depth that fiction can provide.  In a story, a novel, we often go inside the POV character’s head, living with their thoughts, their secrets, their forbidden longings and deep-rooted fears.  We get to know them intimately, and in ways we never could in a movie.

And how is this possible?

insidehead

 

Because we are told what they are thinking.

At the start of A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, one of my favorite novels, the main character returns to his old stomping grounds, The Devon School.  And he tells us what he is feeling . . .

separatepeace

 

“I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be.  In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School had come into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.”

***************

“Show, don’t tell,” would be the appropriate mantra for a movie producer or a screenwriter.  But for a fiction writer?  There needs to be a blend, a happy medium of internal thoughts and outward displays, interior monologues and sequences where actions do all the speaking.

writingclass

 

“Show, don’t tell,” is only partially true.

When it comes to storytelling, perhaps we should say, instead . . .

“Show, and tell.”

showandtell

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

44 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jenniferkmarsh
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 15:55:30

    I love your posts. I love the way they test the “rules” of fiction writing.

    Reply

  2. readinpleasure
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 16:12:04

    A wonderful post. I like Chekov’s quote. 🙂

    Reply

  3. jjspina
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 16:12:19

    Wonderful post! So eloquently done with all the examples and how they can capture so much more than film can. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some studio picked up ‘Eye Dancers.’ Very exciting thought!

    My husband teases me each time I write a novel about what actors are playing the parts! Funny man! But I do give it a little thought just the same. Lol!

    Reply

  4. teagan geneviene
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 17:11:42

    As in so many things, balance is key, isn’t it.

    Reply

  5. evelyneholingue
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 19:03:32

    Agree with Teagan on that one. Although writing is more vivid when we show than when we tell, maybe is is the right amount of each that makes a piece of writing more memorable. I love setting descriptions, for example, and they sometimes require some exposure than goes with some telling. Especially true in fantasy, dystopia and science fiction when the author needs her/his reader to understand a totally new world. And when we are told to show through dialogues, then we can take the risk of having “talking heads” and that’s not so great.
    Good post, as always.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 07, 2014 @ 20:03:29

      That’s a very good point about “talking heads” in dialogue! When characters sometimes go on and on to fill in backstory, etc. That is definitely a tedious way to go about it.:) Glad you brought that up!

      Reply

  6. rod
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 19:51:37

    I agree with your conclusion, partly because I have problems with ‘show don’t tell.’
    For example, the paragraph you quote from The Grass Harp is actually telling, however excellent the imagery may be.

    And surely this statement is not accurate. ‘In a movie or a television episode, the creators are forced to show, all the time. Unless there is a voice-over, there can be no “telling” in a movie.’

    Telling occurs frequently in movies and tv, for example, where one character tells a story to another.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 07, 2014 @ 20:11:13

      That’s a good point–sometimes the difference between “showing” and “telling” is subtle. I would still argue that The Grass Harp passage is more showing than telling–just because the imagery is so vivid the author is “showing” the readers the scene. As opposed to saying, “The sunset was brilliant,” (telling), for example, versus, “The sunset cast shadows over the house, lazy and languorous, as if the world itself were going to sleep.” (Showing.) In description, I think telling is more of a simple statement, and showing is using imagery and metaphor.

      With TV and movies, that’s a great point about the way dialogue is sometimes used. And you’re right. With no narrative description available, the screenwriter sometimes has to have characters fill in the narrative gaps with dialogue. Depending on the way this is handled, it can get very clunky! This sometimes happens in fiction, too . . .

      Reply

  7. rod
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 19:53:07

    Reblogged this on Fragmented Mind and commented:
    I have re-blogged this piece because it deals with a difficult subject of interest to writers and readers.

    Reply

  8. Elaine Jeremiah
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 20:28:31

    I’m so pleased you’ve said this as I struggle to show not tell and I feel vindicated that you say it’s OK to do both. I am trying to improve and show more than tell but it’s difficult.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 10, 2014 @ 18:02:37

      Thanks, Elaine! Really, it’s impossible NOT to tell in fiction–anytime you are writing for a POV character, you often go inside his or her head and “tell” the reader what the character is feeling/thinking–as with the “A Separate Peace” excerpt. I think where showing comes in, especially, is when you’re depicting a character who is not the POV character. In that case, you’re not in this other character’s head, and therefore “show, don’t tell” definitely applies! It’s certainly a fine line to walk.:)

      Reply

  9. eemoxam
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 21:13:59

    Excellent post, a nice reminder to know the rules and then break them. And if anyone is like me and requires professional justification to sleep well at night, here it is.
    http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/why-show-dont-tell-is-the-great-lie-of-writing-workshops

    Reply

  10. Lyn
    Feb 07, 2014 @ 23:51:15

    Sometimes it’s a fine line between show and tell. If you’re reading a book until 2-3 in the morning and you can’t put it down, there’s a good chance it’s doing a lot of showing, but it could be that there is also a fair amount of telling, but, you don’t really care because the storyline carries it – and you – along at breakneck speed. Another excellent post, MIke 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 10, 2014 @ 18:07:26

      Thanks, Lyn! I think the biggest thing is there has to be a lot of telling when you’re inside your POV character’s head. You can “tell” the reader how the character is thinking and feeling, which is, I think, the # 1 difference between fiction writing and movies. In writing we can internalize so much better by going in our characters’ heads–in the movies, all they can do is suggest things through showing. When showing non-POV characters, though–that changes everything, and in that case it’s definitely show and not tell! Always great hearing from you, Lyn.:)

      Reply

  11. Fashion Mayann
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 14:51:53

    You’re so talented that you have the right to dream big : maybe that “The Eye-Dancers” will be made into a film !!!

    Reply

  12. insearchofitall
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 21:41:31

    Now, that makes sense to me! Thank you for another fine teaching job.

    Reply

  13. Meredith
    Feb 08, 2014 @ 21:48:51

    How much do I love your posts?! Lots. You’re helping me with my dreams of becoming a “real” writer, published or not. Time to get back to that NaNoWriMo work in progress, armed with your brilliant insights!

    Reply

  14. Freda Moya
    Feb 09, 2014 @ 19:33:11

    Excellent post. I agree entirely that some telling is necessary as we don’t have a movie camera to show everything. It’s good to know others feel the same as I do. I struggle with showing through imagery and metaphor. It’s really hard! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on a subject which I am sure in some quarters would not go down well! 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 10, 2014 @ 18:11:42

      Glad you enjoyed this! And you’re right–it’s often a fine line when to “show” and when to “tell.”:) I think imagery and metaphor are perfect places for showing! They can make a paragraph/description much more vivid. The main area of “telling,” in fiction, I think, is when a writer is inside the POV character’s head. That’s the beauty of fiction–and that’s what sets it apart from movies and TV. In a written story we go inside our POV characters’ heads. A movie just can’t do that in the same way . . . Always great hearing from you!

      Reply

  15. fashionassist
    Feb 10, 2014 @ 03:25:12

    So enjoyed this post Mike and really hope that one day your dream comes true…
    and that The Eye-Dancers is made into a film…
    so you can see your written “show and tell”…
    become a producers “show, don’t tell”!!

    Reply

  16. laurie27wsmith
    Feb 10, 2014 @ 21:18:18

    Great post Michael. I like to show in the appropriate places and tell in others. If the whole story consisted of ‘show’ the reader would, I think suffer from descriptive overload. I like to create a sine wave effect, where the story ebbs and flows giving the reader a chance to catch their breath.

    Reply

  17. stockdalewolfe
    Feb 12, 2014 @ 01:43:48

    Very true and not so easy. Love your advice to writers!

    Reply

  18. 2embracethelight
    Feb 14, 2014 @ 02:56:45

    You are a very sensitive writer to the needs of your audience.
    Yisraela

    Reply

  19. Gallivanta
    Feb 18, 2014 @ 07:20:08

    Show and tell seems a good balance.

    Reply

  20. coastalmom
    Feb 24, 2014 @ 22:14:07

    I kind of just want to cry that I never had an instructor like you. I imagine sitting in my classes with you soaking up your words! Where were you when I wanted to be a writer in the seventies? Don’t tell me not born yet! LOL!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Feb 25, 2014 @ 14:27:51

      Thanks for these very kind words! And yes–I was born in the 1970s.:) I was a little kid who no doubt got on my older brothers’ and sister’s nerves.:( Those were the days!

      Reply

  21. E.D.
    Mar 04, 2014 @ 21:05:11

    well presented posts.. refreshing in all ways. eve

    Reply

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