It’s been a while since I found time to write an informative post for ‘Ramblings’. The reason is, I have concentrated on writing, publishing, and marketing my books, as all good authors should.
The stimulus for me to write this blog post is, recently I have seen many people asking about ‘Show don’t Tell’. Questions such as “How do I do it?”, “What does it mean?”, and ‘why!”
In my regular rambling way… (hence the title of this blog), and without using any more technical terms than necessary, I shall endeavour to share not only what ‘show don’t tell’ means but why it is the golden criterion for all creative writers.
SO, HERE WE GO…
Firstly, and without any reservation, to write well an author must understand narration.
Creative writing, which includes fiction, principally relies on narrative. The purpose of narration (sometimes referred to as the story’s voice) is to tell a story or ‘narrate’ an event, or series of events.
Inevitably, a major quantity of narration involves description. Description creates, invents, or visually presents a person, place, event, or action, allowing the reader to visualise what the writer is attempting to portray.
Descriptive narrative aims to make vivid a place, an object, or a character. It acts as an imaginative stimulus, allowing the reader to relate to the writer’s notions.
The writer should not simply aim to convey facts about the subject but give the reader a direct impression, thus allowing the reader, the recipient of those words, to create a mental picture that is in union with the writers’ thoughts.
Simply put, through the correct usage of narrative, a writer can project their thoughts into the reader’s mind. Virtually, a form of compliant subliminal connection. One which can transcend both space and time.
To achieve this, writers utilise a practice generally referred to as ‘Show, don’t Tell’.
SHOW, DON’T TELL.
This term is often attributed to the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who is reputed to have said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
What Chekhov factually said, in a letter to his brother, was,
“In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes, he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
You may notice Chekhov does not go into a mass of detail in this explanation. Descriptive writing does not mean the author should attempt to portray the subject in every excruciating detail.
Ernest Hemingway, a notable proponent of the “Show, don’t Tell” style, sustained his ‘Iceberg Theory’, also known as the ‘Theory of Omission’, which he developed while employed as a newspaper reporter.
The term itself originates from Hemmingway’s 1932 bullfighting treatise, Death in the Afternoon.
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Creative literature, in general, hinges on the artful use of a wide range of devices (such as inference, metaphor, understatement, the unreliable narrator, and ambiguity) that rewards the careful reader’s appreciation of subtext and extrapolation of what the author chooses to leave unsaid, untold, and/or unshown.
George Singleton explained this concisely with this notable quotation.
“You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop – H2O. The reader will get it.”
These examples suggest the writers understood the need to respect their readers, who should be trusted to develop a feeling for the meaning behind the action, without having the point painfully laid out for them.
He knew something was wrong because he could see the fear in her eyes and that she was trembling.
She trembled, looking up at him with fear in her eyes.
In this example, ‘Showing’ uses fewer words but packs twice the punch, because you are seeing her actions demonstrating her fear, instead of being told what one character noticed.
It is rarely the function of a character to notice something, that is the reader’s role. By showing the action, the reader (and the characters) figure it out simultaneously, creating a wonderful ‘aha’ moment using a gripping narrative.
Roger was never very bright when it came to figuring things out, he could never seem to do even simple things right.
Roger worked on the crossword puzzle for two hours, scribbling out more incorrect answers than correct ones. The result of all his hard work? Ink stains on his hands.
This example demonstrates the character’s qualities by showing he cannot complete a crossword puzzle and does not realise a pencil would be more practical than a pen.
Showing how your characters behave, readers will interpret their traits automatically. You should not need to endlessly describe every characteristic they have.
There was broken glass on the floor and a pool of blood behind the bar.
His boots ground the glass shards on the floor with each step. He let out a gasp as his eyes focused on the puddle of blood behind the bar.
Showing allows the reader to experience the scene through the character’s experience, and places it in context, as does the character’s emotional reaction.
The pancake tasted bitter; he couldn’t stand it.
He spat out the pancake. The congealed mess landed on his plate. “Darlene, why have you put so much baking powder in these pancakes again?”
You can use dialogue to show ideas, emotions, and actions, which is far preferable to telling the reader. Tasting, for example, is an experiential verb, never tell readers about the experience a character has. Let your reader find out by being part of the action.
When your characters have experiences, you should be showing your reader those experiences through strong scenes and action, not by talking to them from a third-person perspective. This disengages the reader from the story.
If an author understands and utilises ‘Show don’t Tell’ effectively, they will project the essence of their narrative onto the reader in such a way the reader will become fully immersed.
Once the author has ‘captured’ the reader, and they become ‘lost in the book’, then the book becomes ‘unputdownable’, simply because the reader, by their own will and desire, creates a compulsion to find out ‘what happens next’ to the characters within the tale, with whom the reader will now be totally, and emotionally engaged.
This is what makes a good story, a great story.
It is why people read, to escape, to be immersively absorbed and entertained.
It is what sells books.
Remember, someone could be reading your book, anywhere in the world, and at any time in the future, even one hundred years from now, an exchange of extraordinary connection through space and time.
This is one reason I love being an author.
Keep happy, Paul 😊
Paul White is a prolific author with more than twenty-eight published books, including an Amazon no.1, and an international bestselling author.
He is the Principal of Electric Eclectic books, a founder member of the Authors Professionals Cooperative, and a member of #Awethors, an independent authors’ international alliance.
A good introduction to Paul’s works is, ‘Within the Invisible Pentacle’, a collection of short, and not so short, stories.