Pinches of Salt 4: Show, Don’t Tell

If you’ve spent any time at all in any space where people discuss creative writing, you’ve almost certainly heard this advice. It’s the big one, the one piece of advice that all writers are supposed to follow without question. There’s a reason for that: it’s bloody good advice. Strong writing “shows” instead of “tells”. And yet.

The problem, as it so often is, is when the advice becomes a rule, and the “rule” is explained badly, and people follow it without really understanding what it means. So let’s look at what “show vs. tell” actually means.

It’s kind of hard to explain, actually. Which is why it usually gets illustrated with an example, and the example is almost always something like this:

Tell = John was angry

Show = John slammed his fists on the table, his face bright red.

So, the first sentence is a very bald stating of the thing the author wants us to know. John was angry. You know that because you’ve been told, and you’ll just have to take my word for it. But in the second example, I’m not telling you anything about how John feels. I’ve described what he’s doing, and leaving you to make up your own mind about how he feels. You don’t have to decide whether or not you trust what I’m telling you about John’s mood, because you can see it in his actions and demeanour. This kind of example is a really good introduction to the basics of show and tell.

But it’s just that – an introduction to the basics. The problem is that this is where the advice often stops, and this gets interpreted as meaning “Show the characters’ inner emotions through their physical behaviour.” Now, you need some of this. People’s emotions do manifest themselves through certain behaviours, so the same should be true of realistic characters. These behaviours help the reader picture a scene and believe in the emotions. But it’s really, really easy to go overboard and end up with a story that’s completely bogged down in clichéd little gestures. Characters end up stomping everywhere, constantly raising their eyebrows (or just one, which apparently every single fictional character can do and I can’t, so I’m jealous), frowning, sighing, looking away, biting their lips and generally coming across as if they can’t stop fidgeting. (Note that it isn’t a problem at all if your character does these things – they are very common and natural reactions. But you can have too much of a good thing.)

I (borrowing from John Gardner in The Art of Fiction) prefer to think of showing as proof. Or, if we’re going to be down with the kids, bringing receipts. You want your reader to know something, you’ve got to give them no choice but to believe it. You’ve got to be able to back up what you’re saying, in thought and word and deed. And it doesn’t stop with the minute-to-minute emotional states of your characters and the corresponding gestures. Your main themes, your character’s personalities and motivations, the relationships they have with each other, the world they live in – proving these things is far, far more important than making sure your characters slam their fists on tables when they’re angry. There’s a reason why so many romance novels start with the hero hustling some woman out of his bed and getting her name wrong while he does so. It’s to prove that he’s a player, a strictly hump-’em-and-dump-’em kind of guy, so when he tells the reader – and the woman who will obviously, after a few obstacles, become The One – he’s not the commitment type, we really believe it.

Showing the big stuff builds the reader’s trust. It gives credibility to the world and story you have created. One of the (many) things a lot of people found deeply frustrating about Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, is this lack of credibility. The reader is constantly told by other characters that Ana is intelligent, but there are few very examples of her actually behaving in an intelligent way or saying intelligent things, which makes it harder to believe in the characters and their story.

Another place where the interpretation of “show, don’t tell” as “show emotions through physical behaviour” can be unhelpful is in very close points of view such as first person. The whole point of deep POVs is that they allow the writer, and therefore the reader, to get right inside a character’s head. Think about what happens in your head. Do you have a running commentary of what your various body parts are doing? You probably don’t. Showing emotions through physical behaviour is great for observing other people’s reactions, because we can’t get inside their head; we can only describe what we can see. But we can get inside a POV character’s head, and it often makes for much stronger, more personal writing to use this privileged insight rather than relying on gestures which can all too easily become clichéd. Take being angry – when you’re angry with someone, are you thinking about your fists slamming on the table? Or are you thinking, “I’m going to kill him. How dare he? Who does he think he is?” Don’t get me wrong, a bit of fist-slamming often doesn’t go amiss in this type of situation. You want to give your reader clues to what’s physically going on in the scene, to help them picture it. But relying solely on external cues for your “showing” is wasting the opportunities a deep POV offers. The things your characters say, both out loud and in their own heads, are as much proof of their emotional state as the things they do with their bodies.

And, of course, another problem with “show, don’t tell” is the way it becomes a blanket rule. You cannot show everything. Showing takes more words, more time, than telling, in the same way that proving someone is guilty in court takes a lot more time than simply showing up and saying “She totally did it, Your Honour.” Trying to never write anything someone could accuse of being “telling” will exhaust you, bloat your word count, and slow down the pace of your story. The key thing is balance. You need a bit of show, a bit of tell, and the really, really hard part is figuring out when you need to do each. But a good place to start is to figure out what you really need your reader to trust you about. What does your reader absolutely have to know about your characters and your story? What moment does your reader really have to believe in? Showing the important things builds that trust in the reader, and means they’re more likely to believe the little bits of telling you will inevitably need to do.

Now we’ve established that “show, don’t tell” is a lot bigger than a small example can really demonstrate, let’s look at a small example. But let’s ask some questions about it:

Example:

“I am bored.”

  • Does this sentence actually suffer from the problem? – Yes, we are being told how a character feels, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever.
  • What effect would applying this piece of advice have on this sentence? Let’s start with applying the advice in the simplified emotions-as-actions sense. If we replace it with something like “I yawn and drum my fingers on the tabletop”, we’ve got a more vivid picture of the character, who, for brevity, I am going to call Eve.
  • Is that the effect I want? Maybe, maybe not. Vividness is generally good, so many would agree that the revision is a much stronger sentence. But what if Eve is in a position where she can’t yawn and drum her fingers on the table? Maybe the boring thing is her boss, and she’s at an important dinner with important clients that could make or break her career? Here’s one of those opportunities where we can use the privileges of first-person POV – “God, I’m bored. Are they ever going to stop talking? Would they notice if I just fell asleep in my crème caramel?” We have no physical action here, but we do have a lot more character voice, and the questions in the second two sentences help prove the sentiment of the first.

Another option is to switch the focus of the showing – instead of trying to show that Eve is bored, we can show that her boss is boring: “Mr Jenkins drones on and on about the lack of choice in the flowerpot department of his local garden centre” – the reader doesn’t need to be told, or even shown, that Eve is bored, because with the evocative verb “drones” and the description of the subject matter, the reader can feel that boredom for themselves.

  • Result – well, that really depends on what your intention is for that moment. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination, as long as you don’t let yourself be limited by the idea that you must show emotions through physical actions.

So, there you have it. “Show, don’t tell”, means you should write a story about a woman who gets kicked out of bed, slams her fists on the table and goes to buy a flowerpot. Or something like that.

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