Friday, December 20, 2013

Show Don't Tell: The Case For Story-Showers Vs. Storytellers

I've seen some terrible shit as an editor. Stories with plot holes big enough to accommodate a longshoreman's forearms, characters so shallow they had "no diving" tattooed on their foreheads, and honest-to-gods villain monologues have all made their way across my desk. If I had to pick the one thing that keeps coming back like a monster movie slasher though, it's writers who didn't get the "show, don't tell" memo. Rather than just complain about a problem though, I want to try and help writers of all levels stop being storytellers, and start being story-showers.

So, let's begin at the beginning, shall we?
Yes my map is a circle. Yes it still has a beginning.
What Does "Show, Don't Tell" Even Mean?

I have no idea who first coined this phrase, and the Internet has let me down on discovering the origin. However, famous writers as venerable as Ernest Hemmingway and as recent as Chuck Palahniuk have endorsed the advice. One of Hemmingway's most famous quotes regarding the advice of "show, don't tell" uses an ice berg as a metaphor. It goes like this:

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 ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

This confuses a lot of people, but what big-daddy H is laying down is pretty simple to pick up. He's saying that if a writer needs to tell the reader every little thing, then that often represents a failure of communication. Story-showing uses words to craft a scene which the reader can take in, and draw the proper conclusions from.

What Does That Look Like?

Well, a picture is worth a thousand words. I'm not going to write that many, but an example will probably help. So, here, take a look at this image.

A look. Singular.
If someone were to describe this in the storytelling method, it might look like this:

The dancer was sexy.

You can replace "sexy" with whatever subjective word you want, point is that you are telling the reader how to feel about her appearance. You are, in essence, deciding how the reader is supposed to react and dictating accordingly.

Now, a description written in the story-showing style might look more like this;

She was music made flesh. Every sensuous curve gyrated, striking the bells on her hips and ankles in time with the plucking strings. Her smile was slow and wicked, like the sickle-grin of a Cheshire Cat. She swayed, and all eyes followed her hypnotic grace.

All right, maybe the second passage is laying it on a little thick, but look at the differences in context and in what the reader sees. In the first example words like "sexy" and "dancer" aren't very helpful to conveying the image to the reader. One reader might find women with large breasts and broad hips sexy, while another prefers slender, more athletic women. Some readers won't find women sexually attractive at all. Some people will think of ballet dancers, others of strippers, and still others will think of flash mobs or club dancers. By showing the audience the scene, by spending the time to draw out the details without just telling the audience what to feel, a story is greatly improved.

The Difference Between the Two

Some writers might be tearing out their hair, and angrily demanding of the screen if they're just supposed to never make statements about what's happening in their stories. If, to be considered good story-showers, they have to work purely in innuendo and couched terms in order to try to get from A to B.

No. No you do not. That isn't what I'm saying at all.
Then what DO we do?!
What you do need to do is to ask whether you are showing the audience what's happening, or if you're simply making the decision for the reader. For instance, you could say "John's car was a beat-up old rust bucket with peeling paint, but it was all he could afford and it still ran," or you could say "John drove an old '69 Gremlin, with mismatched doors and more primer than paint." By naming the car, you didn't tell your audience how to feel about a situation. You simply provided a detail to help set the scene. That is a "good" use of telling.

A "bad" use of telling would be to say something like "Jim was a real asshole." How do we know that? Subjective descriptions, whether positive or negative, should not be used in description. Dialogue is fine, because dialogue is where characters express their opinions. However, if you want readers to figure out Jim's disposition then you need to show him in a negative light. Have him telling racist jokes, blowing cigar smoke in people's faces, making threats, shoulder-checking people in the hallway; whatever it is that Jim does to make him dislikable, show that. The audience will get the picture you want them to get quickly enough, and you won't have to actually tell them.

One Last Thing...

Every story is going to have a certain amount of telling in it. Sometimes there's really no efficient way to get important data to the reader except to just tell them about it. That said though, it is best to let the readers draw their own conclusions whenever possible.

Nowhere is this more true than with characters' thoughts and feelings.
Except in some, extreme circumstances.
Sometimes writers can get away with this. First person stories, particularly gritty, noir style stories, are renowned for feeding us exactly what a character is thinking and feeling. We let it pass because we are supposed to be riding around in that person's head. If we are not jacked into that person's inner Twitter though, then you should not be giving us the play-by-play of feelings and thoughts.

This mistake happens a lot. It's most common when writers want to convey important feelings to an audience. Love between two leads, hatred between rivals, etc. It's tempting to use words like "angrily" to modify speech, or to just say "hate was written all over her face." Your writing doesn't have a broken leg, and it doesn't need a crutch. Roll up your sleeves and shape the important stuff with the same dedication you do all your other writing. Give us facial expressions, body language, word choice, and all of the other nuance that you have at your disposal to make us hang on your description. Draw readers in, and they'll never want to leave. Tell them how to feel, and they'll slam your cover hard enough to billow your dust jacket.

I hope all my readers, those who write and those who don't, found this week's update useful. If you'd like to keep the Literary Mercenary going, then drop some change in our donation cup in the upper right hand corner. Or, if you're a patron of the arts, check out my Patreon account here and pledge today! As always if you want to stay plugged into my latest, follow me on Facebook and Tumblr to get my updates before anyone else does. Remember, around here, we deal in red.


  1. Thank you, very informative article :)

  2. This is such a valuable tool - thanks for sharing! Showing versus telling can also be applied to all kinds of other opportunities, e.g. creating business pitches, conveying sympathy, blog posts etc. Here's an article I wrote from the perspective of a fiction editor, if you're interested: