18 January 2013 - 9:08 am

Make it visceral

Photo by Trynes

Photo by Trynes

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you’ll hear is ‘show, don’t tell’. It’s a favoured phrase online and offline, in person and on paper. It’s deceptively simple and often misunderstood.

I read a blog post recently that claimed it was all about making the story visual for the reader. The writer should think of their story as a movie or TV show and describe that. It’s a very literal interpretation of the ‘show’ imperative and, I believe, misses the point of the advisory phrase.

(To be clear: describing things visually is a good thing, but it’s too literal and limited as an understanding of this advice.)

What does ‘show, don’t tell’ really mean? In a nutshell: I could tell you that showing was better than telling, but it’s far more effective if I show you.

So first, let’s take a step back. What is telling and why is it bad? Why is showing better? What is this advice trying to achieve?

Telling is when you state something and expect your reader to just accept it. It’s usually simple and often glosses over details. As example:

“Jane was terrified.”

Okay, we’ve been told she is scared, but we don’t really know what that means. “Jane was frozen with terror” is better, but it’s still simplified. It has little to no emotional impact for the reader.

Showing is conveying the same message to the reader by describing the effects of the thing, often without naming the thing (though you can). Taking the example above, the ‘showing’ version could be something like:

“Jane’s mouth went dry and her pulse thrashed in her ears. Every muscle froze while her mind ran in tiny, panicking circles. The worst part was that she couldn’t look away, couldn’t blink, couldn’t do anything but stare as it approached her, step by ground-eating step.”

We’re not told that Jane is terrified; her reaction shows it to us. The reader is drawn into the emotion, must empathise with her to understand her reaction, and is taken along with poor Jane.

What is ‘show, don’t tell’ trying to achieve? Better connection of the reader with the writing, better immersion, and a more convincing story. Readers will quickly grow bored with a story that simply tells them things and doesn’t demonstrate what’s going on. Such tales end up feeling very ‘surface’ but depth is preferable. You should be aiming to grab your reader and drown them in your world, your characters, and your story. Hook them hard and they’ll stay for the whole ride. They’ll come out begging for more.

There’s also a level of trust at work here. Telling relies on the reader simply believing whatever it is you’re saying; showing proves it. It’s the difference between saying ‘I’ve got the most awesome gun you’ve ever seen’ and whipping out that gun so the reader can make that judgement for themselves. Forcing an opinion on someone is much harder than leading them in the right direction and letting them do the work themselves. A shown story is more convincing than a told one for this reason.

Still confused? Here are a few more examples:

“Jack was bored.”

That’s nice, but what does boredom mean for Jack? Why do we care? Can we move on already?

” Jack considered the grain of the table in front of him. He started to count the rings, but he got distracted by a peel of skin next to the nail on his right thumb. As he chewed on it, he stared at the ceiling, noted the start of a crack in the corner, then checked his watch. Had it really only been ten minutes?”

This shows us something about Jack’s character and situation, and gets the reader involved in his state of mind.

“Mary crossed the road. Men in a nearby cafe looked at her and she smiled.”

This doesn’t really tell us much other than the bare actions. Why are the men looking at her? Why is she smiling? Does she know them? Is it relief? Why did the Mary cross the road?

“Mary’s stride lengthened as she stepped off the kerb and arrowed across the wide expanse of tarmac. The high heels of her boots put a sway in her hips that made her feel feminine in a dangerous way, like she was prowling this concrete savannah for prey to sink her teeth into.

“A pocket of silence at a nearby cafe table pressed at her awareness and she felt the eyes upon her, like hungry, drooling dogs. They knew she was queen of the street. She was sexy and magnetic. That feeling bubbled up in her chest until she couldn’t help but smile.”

This time, we know how she crossed the road, and why she might attract attention. A simple smile is put into context. We still don’t know why the Mary crossed the road, but as a reader, we know that this scene has some purpose other than getting her to the other side.

Going back to the blog post that claimed it was all about visuals, consider the ‘showing’ examples above again. How much of them are visual? Very little.

As a writer, you have far more tools than mere sight to use: you have all of the senses, as well as thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, and metaphors at your disposal. You can put meaning in the tiniest gesture, in the fact that the character speaks too much or not at all, in those tiny fleeting thoughts that take the edge off a smile.

All of these things can be used to ‘show’ your readers your story. Text is a very different medium to movies and TV shows, so enjoy it!

By showing, you can layer your narrative with so much more than just pictures and action. This is where your characterisation can be deeper and jump out of the story. This is where your language can be rich and evocative. Revel in the detail and all that it can do for you, and show us what you’ve got.

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4 comments

  1. Nick says:

    I do agree with everything you’re saying in regards to showing, but I’ve become less anti-tell overtime. I wouldn’t suggest anyone adopts it as the only way, but I don’t think it’s the big sin that most say it is.

    The one thing I’d say though, is that if it doesn’t add to the environment or story, then it doesn’t matter how beautifully you write about Gloria pulling a knife from the drawer, and laying it on the side of the dried-out cutting board. In your above example with relation to Mary crossing the road, the showing is only relevant because the men are watching her – you wouldn’t expect that happening every time she crossed a road, opened a fridge, or reminisced about a portrait.

    The showing needn’t always be so pronounced (and I know you’re aware of this, but more for the other readers). You don’t need to hammer the reader with details all the time.

    While showing can help you paint a pretty picture, we can too easily forget that the reader is going to create a mental picture of their own. You can get lost in the details of the clomps of grey hair receding from the hooves of the ageing workhorse, and the withered scars across her crest that interrupted a scrawny mane. It can work. So too can a broken-down mare with three hobbled legs and a fourth on its way. You can say that. You don’t need to show the horse trying to move about with tired old legs, because you’re renting a space in your reader’s imagination.

    You especially don’t need to do it every time. You can also use the thoughts of your characters to telegraph what you want to tell – Henry thought that Jill was quieter than usual, and suspected she felt awkward.

    Exposition is also better served by telling, and sometimes a block of exposition IS necessary. A conversation between two people discussing the history of Grandpa Joe’s health often feels stilted and forced, especially when you’d expect they’d talk about it more regularly – you could tell the same details in a more concise way, by having a character stumble upon a doctor report.

    Showing is usually best, but telling is still allowable.

    January 18th, 2013 at 10:18 am

  2. Mel says:

    Yup, I agree, Nick. Like all writing advice, it can’t be applied in a vacuum. It needs to be balanced by pace and intent, and many other factors.

    For example, another piece of advice is that everything must progress the plot or reveal character; if your detailed piece doesn’t do either of those things, then it should be cut out. Mary’s piece could be a useful exposure of her character or unnecessary fluff, depending on the character and story it’s placed in.

    I really like your point about renting space in your reader’s imagination. You don’t need to describe each and every little thing; just enough to give the reader the impression that you’re going for. Show them enough spark that imagination and judge for themselves. Maybe I’ll talk about that in another post, but yes, it’s another balancing factor.

    To be clear: I don’t think that everything should be ‘shown’. But when someone says ‘show, don’t tell’, this is my interpretation of what that means. It’s a tool in a writer’s toolbox, but not the only one.

    January 18th, 2013 at 10:38 am

  3. Francisco says:

    Thank you both. You’ve given me food for thought.

    January 19th, 2013 at 6:56 am

  4. Miranda Sparks says:

    I’m with Nick on this one. I’m rather fond of showing and telling, starting with “Jack was bored” and maybe elaborating on that. It’s not something I’m fond of letting go of, as I think purely showing can be ambiguous in a way that I don’t care for.

    January 20th, 2013 at 9:37 pm