'Show, don't tell'



Most writers will have heard the phrase 'Show, don't tell' - and if you haven't, then it's about time you did.

We know from our experience that countless first time writers tend to tell rather than show. It's a catastrophic mistake to make - one that will require a complete rewrite of your material. So you MUST get this right. (And do take a look at our video tutorial here.)

The Basic Concept: an example

Compare the two following bits of text, the first of them written by a "Lecturer", the second written by a "Showman". They're examples of showing and telling . . . and we hope you can tell the difference!

Lecturer

Misha's boss was a man named Tupolev. He was a short man, hopelessly out of control of the repair yard, and using anger and contradictory instructions to make up for it. Misha did what he could to calm things down and make progress anyway.

Showman

The train nosed in then stopped. Men began to uncouple the long chain of carriages.

A short but massive man in a waist-length coat and a flat cap began to bellow instructions in a continual torrent. Half the time, the orders made no sense. The man shouted things like, ‘Lift it up – up – no up, you wet dishcloth – well, down then if it doesn’t go. Down!’ He didn’t make it clear who he was addressing or what he was talking about. His face was bright with anger, and he had a tic in his upper lip. The man giving the orders was Comrade Tupolev and he was Misha’s new boss. It was spring.

Tupolev dealt with some other workers, then approached Misha.

‘Malevich. Those carriages. They’re late. They’re required immediately in the port railway. Immediately! Those carriage bodies … Well! They’re in a rotten state! But, you understand, we have to fix them up. You do. Not that you’d understand. An aristocrat. Anyhow. That’s the way it goes. Yes!’

‘You would like me to take charge of repairing those carriages for immediate return to the port railway,’ said Misha, calmly translating his boss’s nonsense into logical order. ‘Yes, comrade.’

What have we learned?

Hopefully, you can see at once, that the first bit of writing explains things just fine - lecturers (see left) are good at explanation. But the showman brings the scene to life. You feel Tupolev, you sense his living presence on the page. You also feel Misha's individuality too. You can sense the kind of man he must be to be shouted at in this way and to respond as calmly as he does.

What makes the difference? It's that the second piece shows Tupolev being angry, shows him being chaotic, shows Misha being calm. And that's the heart of the issue. A reader wants to feel physically present at particular places & times. If they do that and see & feel what's happening, they don't need the lecturer's generalisations at all.

Show, don't tell - the advanced version

Those basic principles about telling and showing need to be followed through in every scene you ever write. Don't tell us what happened, show it happening.

The secret is to make sure that your scenes unfold in real time. Make sure that they seem very physically present. Make sure that you use dialogue to propel the scene, not just a report of a conversation that took place.

In most fiction, pretty much every chapter is written in real time - shown, not told that is. In good quality commercial fiction, you'll probably find it hard to find anything else, in fact. In literary fiction, while the exceptions are more numerous, it is still essential to create the experience of life unrolling moment by moment on the page.

If you think you might have a problem with this issue, then get really disciplined about your response. Check every scene you write. Is it real time (good)? Or reported after the event (bad)? Do you use dialogue (good)? Or just report what happened (bad)? Do you use plenty of physical language to set the scene (good)? Or do you just tell us where it happened in a sentence, then forget about it (bad)?

Also, if you find that your book is shorter than you expected, then it can often be that you're telling too much, and showing too little. As the chunks on this page tell you, showing ain't just better, it's rather longer too. As showmen and showwomen (see right) can tell you, it ain't easy to be wonderful.

A Little Common Sense

As ever, a little common sense is helpful. There are almost no novels in which the author does NO telling. And that's fine: telling is a very useful technique as long as it's kept in its place. Roughly speaking, you want to prioritise telling, when:

  • You are establishing a new scene or chapter and wish to get the reader quickly up to speed with any new facts
  • There is no particular drama to be dealt with, just necessary information
  • You wish to glide quickly over a period of time

You will usually want to prioritise showing, when:

  • There is dramatic action taking place. If those dramatic scenes aren't allowed to unfold dramatically on the page (like the "Showman" excerpt above) you are basically killing your own novel. Which seems silly, really, doesn't it?
  • There is conflict, especially between one or more of your key characters.
  • The incident comprises a major plot development
  • The incident involves the revelation of major new information
  • Emotions are high

A final word

As always, it's easy for us to give you general rules - it's a lot harder to apply them.

There are two main ways to develop your skills. The first is to sharpen your know-how by taking one of our courses; the other is to get tough, honest and constructive feedback on your work. We can help either way - just get in touch.