Showing and Telling
When I was 19 I wrote a novel called “A Peculiar Betrayal.” I feverishly typed it out between watches on ship, scribbled its chapters in notepads on buses and trains; I filled it with all the angst and spelling mistakes I could muster. Of the handful of literary agents I dared sent it to, two were kind enough to send back personal notes[i] alongside their standard rejection letters. Both were surprisingly encouraging, but both said the same thing: show, don’t tell. This article is my attempt, almost twenty years later, to understand what that means.
At the time, I had a lot of BIG IDEAS and BIG FEELINGS I wanted to express (I was 19 after all)[ii]. There have been, of course, many examples of young writers who manage to translate their BIG FEELINGS into works of great beauty, or at least enormous popularity; typically by keeping what they were writing close to their personal experiences (the Diary of Anne Frank springs to mind). My book was nothing like this. I people to understand what I was feeling, and I thought the most functional way to do this was to explain what these feelings were.
But for fiction to be effective it isn’t enough for the reader to know what the writer feels – they have to feel it for themselves. The key to this is immersion. You have to put them into the story and make them experience it as close to first-hand as words on a page can manage. Tell them something is sad and they’ll shrug and move on. Make them feel that sadness themselves and they’ll remember it forever. That is what “show don’t tell” is about: getting the reader to feel what the characters are feeling. But how do we do it?
Knowing the difference between telling and showing comes back to questions we explored in the articles about Point of View, and particularly the difference between narrative distance and intimacy. Telling provides narrative summary and looks like this:
- He was angry.
- He didn’t want to leave.
- She decided she was going to kill him.
It’s quick, it’s efficient, but it doesn’t make you feel anything. Showing, on the other hand, might look like this:
- He slammed the door shut, then turned and gave it a solid kick for good measure.
- He kept shuffling in his seat, checking his phone, stirring his coffee (without taking a sip) and getting no closer to the door as the clock swept past quarter to eight.
- She reached inside her pocket for the little notebook, and with her stubby, worn out pencil wrote “Gregor Clegane” at the bottom of the list of crossed out names.
You don’t come right out and say what the character is feeling or point out the bottom line of what is happening. The reader “sees” the action, and interprets it for themselves, much as one might do in real life. Because you’re engaged in figuring the feelings out in the same way as you do in real life, the whole process makes the story that much more real.
Note that none of my “showing” examples are particularly subtle, nor are they necessarily examples of good writing, but all of them have a greater impact than their “telling” counterparts. The more you can immerse the reader in the world, the more you expose them to the reasons why the character feels what they feel, demonstrated in dialogue, in movement, in context, the more the reader will experience the emotions for themselves.
“Resist the urge to explain things” is the accompanying tag line to “show, don’t tell” (try googling it and you’ll get about a million other creative writing blogs show up.) When you explain things it takes the reader out of the process of engaging with it on a personal level, of visualising it in their own way. It’s so much more fun as a reader when you figure things out for yourself, and that engagement process (more cognitive poetics) is the process that leads to empathy with the characters.
But there is a place for narrative summary. In fact, it is often essential.
The first and most important reason is that the reader needs to know what the hell is going on before they can immerse themselves in the story. You shouldn’t be afraid to tell the reader that your character is 27 years old and lives in Montana, if it lets you get on to more interesting stuff. Indeed, if you insist on making the reader figure everything else for themselves they may just find it too much hard work and give up before they really get going. But there’s a fine line here. Confuse them and they’ll give up, give them nothing to engage with and they won’t have any reason to continue. “I’m 27 years old and live in Montana” could be a perfectly good start (it instantly gives the reader a sense of the PoV), but it had better be followed up by something more interesting.
Narrative summary also allows you to shift the pace feel of your writing. Showing is tiring! I love Shakespeare but reading his plays can be hard work, even if you are comfortable with the language, because endless dialogue forces us to figure out everything for ourselves. Breaking it up with the odd explanation of who is where and doing what would make things easier to follow and give the reader a breather. Similarly, lots of short scenes and punchy dialogue can become relentless and lacking in flow.
Telling rather than showing also allows you to summarise events. This might be to avoid wasting time on things that are not important enough to show (although you should ask yourself whether, if they are not important enough to show, they are still important enough to include.) Narrative summary can create expansive feel to your story, allowing you to cover years (decades, centuries) and miles (continents, galaxies) in a few words. Tolkien tells so much of the Lord of the Rings in the footnotes, the appendices and in passing, giving the sense of a deep, rich world surrounding the character’s personal struggles.
So telling has a place, and an important place: “show, don’t tell” turns out to be more of a guideline than a rule. But if you want to make your reader feel what your characters are feeling, then they have to experience it through seeing the consequences, noticing the responses, hearing the echoes of emotions rippling through the world of the story.
Great, you may be saying, but how do I do that? How do I tell the difference between good telling and bad telling? Most of it will come down to understanding the story that you want to tell, and focussing on showing the important and telling anything that would otherwise get in the way. But the best proofreading tip I have picked up is to look out for any occasion where you refer to emotions outside of dialogue. Any time you find you’ve written “Jack was sad” or “Jenny screwed up the ball of paper in frustration”, cross and out and look for another way to show it (or indeed just cross out the word – Jenny screwed up the ball of paper is probably enough on its own.)
Looking back at the novel my 19-year-old self wrote, the few bits I remember are all things that happened around the rather turgid explanations of plot. I remember the main character unfolding himself out of the manual train door at Waterloo station, or the meeting in a café where one man is tearing up placemats stolen from the pub down the road. The things that strike the reader are those that they recognise, and from which they can build their own understanding of the characters in your story. Don’t tell them how they should feel. Show them what you see in your mind and let them come to you themselves.
[i] This was remarkably kind of them. My book was enthusiastic but was also very, very bad. After the first batch of rejections I decided I was better off stopping and writing something else. Sadly, the next novel I wrote was even worse (I didn’t even bother sending that out), and I figured I was even better off concentrating on my Navy career until I’d learned how to write straight.
[ii] I only have little ideas and little feelings now. I keep them in my pocket and, like my phone, occasionally misplace them. I then have to search through all my clothes to find I left them, right there, in the first place I looked.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/51035707273@N01/1450111206″>feelings8</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>