show don't tell

Show, Don’t Tell Part II


Every form of writing benefits from conveying action and ideas before the eye, on-stage rather than offstage. The writer, then, should see himself as a stage director, introducing subjects and presenting action, whether he’s crafting a research paper, a novel, or a screenplay.

Narrative summary is the recounting of what happens offstage, out of the reader’s sight and hearing, a scene that is told rather than shown.

An immediate scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable. That’s the important test. If you can’t film a scene, it is not immediate.

Don’t write conclusions about your subject. Telling your readers that someone is angry, elated, anxious, puzzled, discouraged, etc., engages their intellects. When you show a character’s emotions, you engage your readers’ emotions. By showing, you open a door that others can enter. Your readers will identify with your character as they experience what he experiences.

Instead of writing—
She was fat.

The weight she had gained stacked rolls of flesh from her chin to her shoulders. The fat appeared to have eaten her neck.

In When Did You Last See Your Father, Blake Morrison shows his father’s nature through his behaves in a traffic jam:

Every two minutes or so he gets out of the car, crosses to the opposite verge and tries to see if there is movement up ahead. There isn’t. He gets back in … he opens the door for a final time and stands on the wheel arch to crane ahead.

Morrison could have simply told us that his father was an impatient man. Instead, he showed his father’s impatience through action.

Notice how Saul Bellow portrays his father through what he says in Memoirs of a Bootlegger’s Son.

‘You can turn to me,’ he’d say. ‘But to whom can I turn? Everything comes from me and nothing to me. How long can I bear it? Is this what the life of a man is supposed to be? Are you supposed to be loaded until your back is broken? Oh my God, I think I begin to see. Those are lucky who die when their childhood is over and never live to know the misery of fighting in the world.’

Without a word of explanation from Bellow, we come to see Pa as a self-pitying and pessimistic man.

Sarah took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust.  Disgust is abstract, recoiled is concrete. Do we need both? No. The sentence is stronger without telling why Sarah recoiled. Better still, instead of saying Sarah took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust, try describing the room so that readers feel the disgust for themselves. Or show Sarah reacting to particulars that paint a disgusting room in their minds. Remember, you don’t want to cite facts, you want to give your readers an experience.

In a narrative summary, the reader meets Coleman sitting at a lunch counter “drinking endless cups of coffee as he waits for Suzanne.”  The reader cannot see “endless cups” of anything, and the writer can do better than telling the reader Coleman waits. A little description changes the effect:

As Coleman sipped the last dregs of coffee, he looked up to see the counterman holding the pot, ready to refresh his cup. When the steam stopped rising from the cup, he sipped again. As the counterman approached for the third time, Coleman shook his head and rose from the stool. He reached into his pocket for bills and tossed two singles on the counter. Forget Suzanne.

We’re never told that Coleman is fed up. We’re never told that Suzanne left him. We deduce the facts because we see Coleman, and subsequently, we’re able to feel something of what Coleman feels when Suzanne keeps him waiting.

Ernest Hemingway advised—

Your object is to convey every sensation, sight, feeling, emotion, to the reader…. But there are ways you can train yourself. When you walk into a room and you get a certain feeling or emotion, remember back until you see exactly what it was that gave you the emotion. Remember what the noises and smells were and what was said. Then write it down, making it clear so the reader will see it too, and have the same feeling you had. And watch people, observe, try to put yourself in somebody else’s head. If two men argue, don’t just think who is right and who is wrong. Think what both sides are. As a man, you know who is right and who is wrong; you have to judge. As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.

Edward Albee—

“Good writers define reality; bad writers merely restate it.”

Narrative Summary:

Jess, dressed like a cowboy, went into the barn and began to milk the cow, the first time he’d ever stooped to doing it.

Immediate Scene:

Jess strode off with the bucket toward the barn in that peculiar rolling gait that was just short of a limp, his spurs ching-chinging, his bat-wing chaps flapping against his bowed legs, and his black hat with the rattle-snake band on his thatched head. The red door squealed in protest when he swung it open, and the ammoniated stench of the wet hay stung his nostrils. He found the cow in the dark, her muley horn lit by a Rembrandt shaft of light…

Narrative Summary:

New York City has more than 1,400 homeless people.

Immediate Scene:

Hungry, thirsty and cold, the man who has laid claim to the bench on the corner of 88th and Park Avenue is one of New York City’s 1,400 homeless people.

Instead of writing that he lay there dead, where he fell so many years ago, Joseph Conrad, in Heart of Darkness, shows the passage of time with “grass growing through his ribs… tall enough to hide his bones.”

From Stephen Crane’s An Experiment in Misery

From the dark and secret places of the building there suddenly came to his nostrils strange and unspeakable odors that assailed him like malignant diseases with wings. They seemed to be from human bodies closely packed in dens; the exhalations from a hundred pairs of reeking lips; the fumes from a thousand bygone debauches; the expression of a thousand bygone miseries.

When you read through your work, look for concepts, passages that tell or explain, and rewrite them. Use words to paint images. Write strong and lean, and you’ll evoke a response in your readership.

Don’t tell us—
He felt shy.

He looked up, but his gaze faltered before meeting hers.

Don’t tell us—
He was very surprised.

He let out a long, low whistle.

Don’t tell us—
He felt anxious.

He twisted a rubber band over his hand until his knuckles turned white.

When overweight misfit Oscar de Leon, in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, realizes that his friends are embarrassed by him, it “knocks the architecture right out of his legs”.

Good writing strings together fresh and arresting visual images that aim at the gut to impact the cerebral. In the perennial search for vividness and color, a writer’s best tools are concrete—active, strong verbs and specific details that speak to the senses.

Consider the following paragraph written a high school students during a fifteen minutes in-class exercise. They were told to describe themselves.

Rainy days and large cups of tea keep me going. Everyone sees me as someone else, but who isn’t that true for? In my room, I have many books, the best of which are dog-eared and lay open on the floor, spines upward from my recent endeavor to capture inspiring verses from their timeless passages for my journal. But I’m not an egghead, seriously. Recently I read back over a journal entry that seems to keep resurfacing in latter entries. It went like this: “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure I am arranging and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”  How true, especially at this age. I see myself as a loner, but I am always with friends. Music and reading seem to feed me, and to write about it is desert (I hate saying things like that). I could tell you about my family, my school, but none of that is me. I would rather tell you about my aspirations. But since you are different than me, it wouldn’t interest you to know.

What is the tone of this piece? Does the tone tell you something about the writer? Does it begin to describe the writer’s personality? Can you tell me something of his worldview from this short paragraph? Can you tell me how he feels about himself, his life, his dreams?

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist