Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Show, Don't Tell?

Image courtesy of K Whiteford at, modified by me.
Depending on where you are in your journey as a writer, you may or may not have heard the expression, “Show, don’t tell.”  It’s one of those maxims that gets repeated a lot in the writing community.  If you were to perform a web search using that phrase, you would get results of countless articles, blog posts, possibly even advertisements for books.  It has another variant: “Don’t tell me; show me.”  It’s the holy grail of writing advice, and it tends to be regurgitated in every writing blog, magazine, or book out there.

You know, so I thought I’d climb aboard the “show, don’t tell” regurgitation bandwagon.  Admittedly, it’s a concept that bears repeating, and while it sounds simple, it can be a bit flummoxing at times.  Because, honestly, just what exactly does it mean? After all, we ‘tell’ stories, don’t we?  How can we ‘show’ something when we are using words, which by definition, means we are ‘telling’ it?

In general, the idea is that if you write something like, “Jack and Jill flirted with each other for several minutes before they finally decided to part ways,” that would be considered ‘telling.’  If you were to describe the flirting – say, write about their flirtatious behavior, that would be considered ‘showing.’  To ‘show’ this kind of thing requires an understanding of what flirting looks like, or, if the narration style is from one of the character’s point of view, what it feels like. (If you’re trying to write something like this but have never flirted, don’t despair – you can get a general idea from movies and/or observing other people.) You would write dialogue for Jack and Jill’s witty banter, describe their body language and other physical cues that go along with flirting, and so on.

And believe it or not, showing v. telling is a concept that applies to film and theatre as well.  That might sound surprising, since, you know, theatrics are ‘showing’ by definition, but remember that writing is ‘telling’ by definition.  “Show, don’t tell” applies across all storytelling media.  A good example of how this applies in film is from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the Star Wars saga, Obi-wan Kenobi is a Jedi Knight who is training Anakin Skywalker in the ways of the Jedi.  Their relationship starts as more of a father-son thing, but by this point in the story they are basically blood brothers. These guys are tight. Besties. Trust each other with their lives.  It’s a major bromance.  You get the idea.

In one particular scene, Obi-wan watches some security hologram footage that shows how Anakin has sold out to the Dark Side (trademark!) of the Force. (Even those who don’t know Star Wars probably know that Anakin turns into Darth Vader, but Obi-wan hasn’t seen the movies yet.) The footage even shows Anakin slaughtering the Younglings – basically, the Jedi version of Cub Scouts.  After Obi-wan sees a few seconds, he shuts it off and says, “I can’t watch anymore.”  His eyes are wide and he says, “I don’t believe it.”

This is, in my opinion, a case of telling rather than showing.  Sure, we can figure out from what Obi-wan tells us that he can’t believe it, and that he’s shaken by the whole thing, but beyond a little eye-widening, we don’t really see it.  In my opinion, a better way of communicating this would be for us to see a more physical response from Obi-wan.  Perhaps he would close his eyes and turn away; he would shut off the hologram with a visibly shaky hand. He might not even say “I can’t watch anymore.” He wouldn’t need to say it for us to understand that’s what he’s thinking.  Instead of saying “I don’t believe it” in his normal acting delivery voice, he could stammer, his voice could crack, he could bury his face in his hands, or anything like that.  Granted, in the movie, he does shake his head a little bit, but I feel as if this is woefully insufficient.  One might argue that he’s too shocked to react, but we would see physical cues from this.  If you’re too shocked to react, you don’t say, “I don’t believe this.” You simply don’t react. In this case, Obi-wan would just stand there, doing nothing – he might have is mouth open or we might see him shaking a little bit.

Obi-wan’s entire world has just undergone a massive paradigm shift.  Jedi or not, that’s core-shattering.  I’m not suggesting that he should have a total meltdown; being able to rein in the shock after a few minutes would be consistent with his character, but as viewers, we would know how much this is eating at his soul.  Then, when he finally does have a breakdown and screams at Anakin at the end of the movie, the audience knows just how much Obi-wan is hurting – we know how long he’s been holding it in.

For the record, I love Ewan McGregor as Obi-wan Kenobi.  I’m not dissing him here.  I might be dissing the writer and/or director, but not McGregor.  Just so we’re clear.

So, “show, don’t tell” seems like a simple enough concept, but it’s easy to get tripped up on it.  Does this mean telling is always bad?  Is showing always good?  Dealing in absolutes is never a good way to look at things.  You know, except for the absolute that I just said.

Both showing and telling are useful tools.  They are different tools, but both are useful.  They simply have different functions.  Would you use a hammer to put in a screw? Well, I suppose you could, but you would seriously botch your project.  What about using a wrench to put in a nail? Once again, you could, but it’s going to be a really awkward process, wherein you might injure yourself, damage the project, and/or look like a total fool while doing it. In the example of “Jack and Jill flirted with each other for several minutes” and Obi-wan’s simple “I can’t watch anymore,” we see ‘telling’ being used clumsily.  It’s not the right tool for the job.  

‘Showing’ is the preferable method most of the time.  Can you imagine how flat it would be if J.K. Rowling simply told us that Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter was an unpleasant person and that everyone disliked her? Instead, Rowling shows us that Umbridge is, in fact, despicable. She demonstrates this by showing everything: Umbridge’s obnoxious little “hem hem,” her faked sweetness, the quill that writes lines in the back of Harry’s hand, and so on. By the end of book 5, you pretty much hate Umbridge more than you hate Voldemort. This is not because Rowling said that Umbridge was a nasty person.  It’s because Rowling showed us, in gruesome detail, just how horrific and hateful Umbridge was.

This is not to say that ‘telling’ is useless and should NEVER EVER BE USED.  It’s more like that one tool in your toolbox that you only use for a very specific purpose.  So, while “everybody knows” that you should use ‘showing,’ there are times that telling is useful.

For example, if you are writing a story that spans a large period of time, if you were to ‘show’ every single thing, your story would be longer than Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga. (For those who don’t know, Wheel of Time is fourteen volumes long.) Having just used Rowling as an example of how effective and good showing is, I would also like to point out that she uses ‘telling’ quite well.  ‘Telling’ is best used for…take a wild guess…time skips.  If you skip from January to March, you will need some ‘telling’ to fill in a few minor details.  Rowling obviously needs to use time skips because she covers an entire school year, and she can’t fill in every single excruciating detail.

Now, even when you are ‘telling,’ you need to do it in such a way that doesn’t feel quite so much like telling.  Instead of saying, “Three weeks passed.  Jack and Jill periodically talked to each other throughout this time,” you might try something more along the lines of, “Over the course of the next three weeks, Jack and Jill continued to talk to each other occasionally.”

However, you need to be cautious in your use of ‘telling.’  If you’re glossing over something, consider whether you ought to be showing it instead.  If Jack and Jill discuss something during this time that is important to the plot, then you definitely need to be ‘showing.’

While the maxim “show, don’t tell” is a useful – arguably crucial – thing for writers to remember, do bear in mind that telling isn’t always bad.  Deciding when and where to use it is the trickier thing. This is going to be a bit of a judgment call on your part, and if you’re not sure about it, ask a trusted friend for advice on the matter.

Or, if you fall back on the time-tested “show, don’t tell” advice, it’s pretty hard to go wrong.

Have you heard the expression “show, don’t tell”? What do you think about the concept? What are some ways you can incorporate it into your own writing? Share any questions or thoughts in the comments.

Was this blog post useful? Take a minute to share it on your favorite social network.

No comments:

Post a Comment