Show don’t tell (well, sometime tell)

If you’ve taken up fiction writing as a hobby it is best to become familiar with the common piece of advice to show don’t tell. What does it mean to show don’t tell. On the outside it seems so simple. Show what’s going on, don’t tell it, but if your art is writing how do you not tell it? After all, don’t you tell a story? Isn’t writing meant to convey an action by telling it? When you write what has happened, aren’t you telling?

In my mind, show don’t tell is what separates fiction from non-fiction. A newspaper will tell you what happened. Joe Smith got robbed by a masked man on West 57th Street. And technical manuals will be even more specific. In order to build this bookshelf follow these instructions. Step 1: insert peg A in to hole A. (Oh my, what an A hole!)

But if that was all there was to fiction, it would be a pretty boring book and the point of telling a story is multifarious, but it is not to direct you how to build a bookshelf, or to report an incident.

So what does it mean, show don’t tell? The College Handbook of Creative Writing gives a good explanation. “The grammar-school game of ‘Show and Tell’ is often used to clarify the distinction. There is a big difference between being told by a child that he found a dead rat and having him actually produce the ugly corpse from a brown paper bag.” Imagine the shock you’d feel at seeing the grizzled bit of matted fur stuck onto guts, the tongue jutted out of teeth, the limbs stiff from rigor mortis splayed out ready to scratch and the smell of rotting meat. This would be a more vivid experience.

So consider a few examples. In David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks one of the characters, Miss Constanin is described by an admiring girl as, “young and beautiful in a cold way, like an actress who can’t be touched; she’s got white-blond hair and bone-pale skin, rich rose-red lips and a midnight blue ball gown like a woman from a story.” This is much more effective than simply telling the audience, “This woman is other worldly.” A lustful young man describes her in this passage: “The hairs on my neck prickle, as if blown on. By her, for example, sitting across the aisle…Her eyes  are closed to drink in the music so I drink her in. Late thirties…vanilla hair, creamy-skinned, beaujolaid lips, cheekbones you’d slice your thumb on. Slim beneath a midnight-blue winter coat. A defected Russian opera singer, waiting to meet her handler.” You can almost see her and feel how vivid his attraction is to her in the description. Much more effective than saying, “Wow, look at that hot chick.”

So how d you decide between the mostly preferred show and the mostly advised against tell? The best thing to remember when deciding is that fiction is an experience akin to an amusement ride. Do you want to go on the ride, or be told about it? And this is the consideration if you’re writing fiction purely for entertainment purposes, but what if you are writing for political reasons? What is more powerful? Telling you audience from an objective distance what your characters are suffering or having the audience walk a mile in the suffering character’s shoes? Feeling their feelings, experiencing their pain. The same applies if you are writing for purely artistic reasons. What is ore powerful? The description of a sunset – or how it feels, sounds, how it moves you and what emotional landscape does it take you to.

Consider this passage: “A yellow bus drives across a traffic bridge over a river of boats.” Now, consider this: “An omnibus across the bridge/Crawls like a yellow butterfly,/And, here and there, a passer-by/Shows like a little restless midge./Big barges full of yellow hay/Are moored against the shadowy wharf,/Thick fog hangs along the quay./The yellow leaves begin to fade/And flutter from the Temple elms,/And at my feet the pale green Thames/ Lies like a rod of rippled jade.” (Symphony in Yellow by Oscar Wilde.)


About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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