Sunday, June 22, 2014

Show, Don't Tell

Writers should have the word Show tattooed on the back of their left hand and Don’t tell on the other, and they should chant those words like a mantra while they work. What do I mean by Show, don’t tell? As Chekhov said (Anton Chekhov, not the guy on Star Trek), “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” To take a larger view, we could modify show, don’t tell to scenes versus exposition. That works, too, because the concept is the same. That is to say, writers should build stories as a succession of dramatic scenes (showing) connected by whatever essential information the reader needs (telling). The most acceptable form of telling, however, is always couched in the thoughts of a point-of-view (POV) character, as in writing something like this:

David knew that he could blame his father for his sudden attack of conscience. All through his childhood, that domineering man had drilled into him lessons about . . . blah, blah, blah.

By writing "David knew," the writer is telling readers that the information that follows comes via the POV character's thoughts, not from an off-stage omniscient narrator.

Showing draws the reader into the story by providing mental images; telling asks the reader to sit still and listen while you drone on. Showing offers dramatic effects; telling does not.

All writers struggle to comply with this basic rule to one extent or another. Those who do more showing than telling are way ahead of the game, while those who tell too much are cheating their readers and risking losing them. When the author tells the story by using point of view-less narration (omniscient exposition), the reader is one step removed from the action and the characters because the author places himself in the middle. As a result, the reader becomes an observer and a recorder of information, simply taking in the data, and his emotions are not engaged. Therefore, much of the impact and immediacy is lost because readers can react emotionally only to an act. “People read fiction for emotion, not information,” as Sinclair Lewis said. Never forget that story means drama, and drama requires character in action. Both action and reaction to action advance the plot and reveal the strengths and weaknesses of character. Action does not have to be vast and violent, but whatever form it takes, it must be shown, not told.

Important: Keep in mind that plotting serves largely to arrange a story in ways that allow the writer the best and most logical ways to show rather than tell the story.

Aspiring novelists should make a special effort to avoid value judgments, which are perhaps the most onerous form of telling. For instance, a writer may say in narration that it is “an ugly house” or that she’s “a wonderful teacher.” If you want readers to respond emotionally to people, things, and events (you do), then such things should be shown, not told.

Telling instead of showing often weakens the opening paragraphs of a chapter or a scene in the work of new writers, especially if the narrative fails even to establish the time and place of the action (two of the requirements of scene framing). Beginnings are much more focused and effective if you start with a single POV character doing something at a specific place and time—if you showed your readers a scene as if it were a stage set, with a person or people in action instead of feeding them dry information. Once that’s done, then you can slip in some description of the setting, some background info, a character sketch, a bit of history, or whatever you need through the consciousness of the VPC (viewpoint character).

Bottom line: Let your story and your characters reveal themselves through action (including dialogue), allowing your readers to witness the action as it occurs, scene by scene. Write like this, and you’ll find that if the scenes—the showing parts—are done well, then you won’t need so much exposition—the telling parts, which is a good way for writers to tighten their novel. As you rewrite, you’ll often find that most of the vital information you thought had to be spoon-fed to the reader by exposition can be inserted more artfully into someone’s thoughts (interior monologue) and dialogue. The best-selling writer Elmore Leonard, who was a real old pro, has said that all the information you need to communicate can be included in dialogue. His crime novels may not be your cup of tea, but he’s one writer who really knows what it means to show instead of tell.

Paul Thayer