Don’t tell us she’s special. Show us

You know one of the best ways to irritate someone? Keep telling them how wonderful a person is who they don’t know – and never say why. ‘She’s so lovely.’ ‘She’s great.’ ‘She’s terrific.’ Result? After a while, you think ‘she’ is anything but.

I’ve been reading a novel where the author has been doing exactly this. The main character has been separated from a girl he has fallen in love with, and for long periods is wondering if he’ll ever see her again. The author did a grand job of setting up the romance earlier. The problem was when he was separated from her and the yearning began.

Tell me again, I can’t bear it

We have endless screeds of ‘he loved her so much’. ‘She had a certain something.’ (What did she have? Three ears?) ‘He felt a pain whenever he thought of her.’ (In what way was he thinking of her?’) It was unsatisfying, empty – and pretty soon very irritating.

Why? Readers (in general, not just heartless old me) don’t like being told what to feel. We want to feel it too. Or we actually react the other way. (Which is fine if that’s what you want. In this book it wasn’t the case.)

Besides, it’s not truthful. Perhaps that’s why we resent it, because it seems empty and insincere. When someone’s really missing their dear one, they don’t remember their summary of the emotion. They’d get an exquisite flashback of the time they got lost together walking back from the bus stop in the pitch dark. They’d find themselves snagged by faces in a crowd, because their foolish brain was saying ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if she was there’.

Show not tell

This is, of course, showing, not telling. And it’s so powerful. Showing makes the reader feel what the character feels. It casts a spell of experience. It is not analytical. It is not a summing-up. It presents the truth and lets the reader make up their mind.

Show not tell is one of the hardest things for a writer to remember. The example that provoked this post is actually from a published novelist of otherwise impeccable accomplishments. Show not tell requires the most imaginative effort and all the writers I know slip unintentionally from time to time.

Why is it so hard?

I’ve often wondered why this is. Maybe it’s because our analytical brain is saying ‘in this scene he missed her’ and it’s easy to write that. Showing it means we have to submerge into the character’s experience – which isn’t always easy. But showing intimately what a character feels is one of the most gripping things a writer does. Good writing isn’t words. It’s an experience. And experience is not analytical.

Don’t write the analysis. Write the experience.

Let’s play a game. Find an example you like and leave it in the comments – and afterwards show how you’d squash it flat by telling instead of showing. I’ll kick off.

‘Once he had been strong enough to lift a carousel horse in each arm. That was a long time ago.’ Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Telling version: ‘He used to be so strong’.

Take it away, guys

Thanks for the pic Philip Morton

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  1. #1 by Emma Darwin on January 22, 2012 - 8:39 pm

    Good post.

    I call Telling “Informing” and Showing “Evoking”. There are times for Telling – when you need to cover the narrative ground, for example. But you do need to learn to make your Telling Showy, which is what that Mitch Albom clip is doing: not evoking a ‘live’ scene of the man being strong, but informing us that he is strong with evocative words.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 22, 2012 - 10:15 pm

      Hi Emma. That’s a nice way of explaining the difference – informing versus evoking. And there are certainly times when telling is right, for a variety of reasons. Distance can be a useful device, if done deliberately.
      There’s a quote I can’t quite pin down that says it well – ‘don’t tell us it’s raining, tells us what it feels like to get wet’. And as you say, it doesn’t have to be a full-length scene. A well-chosen snapshot is just as good.

  2. #3 by Jayz on January 22, 2012 - 9:46 pm

    Showing is for good prose fiction, telling is for journalism. We want to be planted in a scene – discovering how a character feels after getting caught in a storm, for example, not merely told that “he didn’t have an umbrella so he got very wet walking home”. If it’s well written we should feel as if we’re left wringing the water out of our socks.

    My fave? The beginning of A Tale of Two Cities. How very different from the first chapter of a textbook on the French Revolution!

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 22, 2012 - 10:18 pm

      Jayz, that’s exactly it. As a journalist I had to unlearn telling – every time a speaker is presented in a piece of journalism, the analysis comes first. This is because a journalist is presenting an argument, not an experience. But it’s darn hard to get out of the habit.

  3. #5 by Susan Schreyer on January 22, 2012 - 9:56 pm

    From Kaylan Doyle’s Survivors’ Dreams: He absently rubbed his right thumb, frowned at the purple lump on his left.

  4. #7 by Dave Morris on January 22, 2012 - 10:46 pm

    Here is a great example from Dorothy L Sayers’ novel Strong Poison, in which Lord Peter Wimsey is sitting up all night wrestling with a problem which, if he can’t solve it, will mean the woman he loves goes to the gallows:

    “The theatre-going crowds surged home in saloon and taxi, the lights shone over the empty width of Piccadilly, the heavy night-lorries rumbled slow and seldom over the black tarmac, the long night waned and the reluctant winter dawn struggled wanly over the tiled roofs of London. Bunter, silent and anxious, sat in his kitchen, brewing coffee on the stove and reading the same page of the British Journal of Photography over and over again. At half-past eight the library bell rang…”

    Thus we share Lord Peter’s long night and first ray of hope – Sayers doesn’t just tell us about it.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 22, 2012 - 10:51 pm

      Nice. Well done, Husband

      • #9 by Victoria on January 23, 2012 - 9:26 pm

        Oooh, lovely! If we’re going to quote great moments like Sayers’. . .here’s a line from Dashiell Hammet’s The Thin Man:

        “I heard Nora’s breath change, and the back of my neck went cold.”

        You almost don’t even need to see the gun.

  5. #11 by mrdisvan on January 22, 2012 - 10:58 pm

    Of course, “Show don’t tell” is not the same rule as “Make a scene of it”. People often confuse those. The first is invariably true and must never be broken, the second is, like the pirate code, more of a general guideline.

  6. #13 by Daniel R. Marvello on January 22, 2012 - 11:48 pm

    Thanks for the reminder. In my day job, I’m a Web application and database software developer, so to say I have a tendency to over-analyze would be a gross understatement. My day-job skills were helpful when I was writing non-fiction, but I had to beat them into submission when I started writing fiction. Now I just trot them out when story planning.

    FYI: I just uploaded my first book to KDP about 5 minutes ago, almost exactly one year from when I started. For good or ill, my work has been unleashed upon the world. Thank you for the part you have played in helping make it a reality. Your craft posts have been instructive, practical, and positive.

    Count me a fan.

  7. #15 by Irene Vernardis on January 23, 2012 - 12:20 am

    Hi Roz. Great post.

    Unfortunately, the latest three books I read are full of telling. I say unfortunately, because the plot was very interesting and they could have been good, if it wasn’t for the telling issue.

    The “analytic” issue is not the problem, IMO. One can be analytic and not telling, and vice versa, one can be telling without being analytic.

    I think the problem is that authors, in the “telling” version, describe. They describe the scenery, the characters, the feelings, the story. They describe everything. Successful storytelling is not about describing it, it’s about living it. If an author lives the story, then the readers will too.

    A successful actor merges with the character when he plays the role; he does not describe the role, he lives it. So must an author do. If the character runs through a burning house, the author must feel the heat, smell and even choke with the smoke, feel the fear. In that way, the writer makes the reader live the story too. Difficult, yes, but then again writing is not easy.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 23, 2012 - 6:41 am

      Agreed, Irene – I often feel that acting and writing are very similar. When I write best I find I’m living the scene and once I’ve got to that state of immersion – and knowledge – it’s effortless.
      The trouble is getting there.

  8. #17 by Deb Atwood on January 23, 2012 - 1:19 am

    Fun assignment!

    This is from The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy:

    Inspector Thomas Mathew came around his desk and approached Ammu with his baton.
    “If I were you,” he said, “I’d go home quietly. Then he tapped her breasts with his baton.Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket.

    Telling: Inspector Thomas Mathew is a power-hungry brute.

  9. #19 by Kathy Sewell on January 23, 2012 - 4:46 am

    I love the writing of James George. Here is an excerpt from Hummingbird. ‘She wakes in the dusk, his body now just a pulse beside her. She leans over and runs her cheek across his chest, feeling him shift beneath her. Not without, but within. As if she can hear the streams of his blood, listen to the story that he keeps away from her.’ In telling form I would write it as. ‘There was so much she did not know about her new lover.’

  10. #21 by Michelle MacEwan on January 23, 2012 - 5:09 am

    I have just started reading Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea so I have chosen an example from the first tale, The Finder.

    ‘It didn’t seem to him to amount to much. It was such an easy matter to make a silvery light shine in a dark room, or find a lost pin by thinking about it, or true up a warped joint by running his hands over the wood and talking to it, that he couldn’t see why they made a fuss over such things. But his father raged at him for his “short cuts,” even struck him on the mouth when he was talking to the work, and insisted he do his carpentry with tools, in silence.’

    ‘He had a very strong power. He found it easy to fix things by using this power but it made his father very angry. Sometimes his father hit him if he used magic and made him use ordinary tools.’

    Roz, you have a great knack for bringing clarity to these issues. I like the way you put it – ‘Don’t write the analysis. Write the experience.’

  11. #23 by Writersbuffet on January 23, 2012 - 9:48 am

    Thanks Roz! You’re post was so helpful! (Writersbuffet – Rozanne)

  12. #25 by Glynis Smy on January 23, 2012 - 12:14 pm

    ‘I don’t think it is fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,’ added little Amy, with an injured sniff. ( Little Women by Louisa May Alcott).

    My version: The little girl -Amy- felt hard done by.

  13. #27 by TeacherWriter Suzanne Lilly on January 23, 2012 - 1:51 pm

    Here’s one from Robert Crais, THE TWO MINUTE RULE
    Set up: A man who hasn’t seen his son in twenty years is told by his friend that his son just died. The author could say, “Holman was heartbroken, filled with regret.” Boring. Robert Crais writes:
    “Holman heard the words; he saw the pain in Wally’s eyes and felt the concern in Wally’s touch, but Wally and the room and the world left Holman behind like one car pulling away from another on a flat desert highway, Holman hitting the breaks, Wally hitting the gas, Holman watching the world race away.

  14. #29 by Mary Tod on January 23, 2012 - 2:46 pm

    For now, all he can do is make himself see everything and not shake and not look away.

    Taken from The Paris Wife but they are Hemingway’s words. The tell version might be something like ‘The memory of war overwhelmed him.’

    Here’s one of my own attempts:

    He held the sheet of paper for several moments watching the second hand of his desk clock sweep away time. Beyond his door a typewriter clattered and he caught a quick flash of royal blue as a secretary rushed by. Edward’s heart thudded, as one remaining lung expelled a long sigh.

    I’m trying very hard on the show don’t tell front :)

  15. #31 by heathergeo on January 23, 2012 - 5:29 pm

    This is one of my favorite lines from Flannery O’Connor’s Good Country People

    “Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.”

    I think that one line sums up Mrs. Freeman.

  16. #33 by Jacinda Little on January 24, 2012 - 12:41 pm

    From Josh Ritter’s novel, Bright’s Passage:

    “Then Henry Bright lay back and thought about Rachel, the delicate shells of her ears, the pinkness of her tongue, the way she laughed in her sleep.”

    Your “three ears” comment reminded me of this passage. I think this one sentence speaks of the couple’s intimacy and Henry’s affection for Rachel more than “he missed her” ever would.

    • #34 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on January 24, 2012 - 3:34 pm

      Mmm, that’s nice. I see you’ve just reviewed Bright’s Passage too. Shall have to see what you said about it.

  17. #35 by never2late2write on January 24, 2012 - 2:02 pm

    It’s wonderful to get writing advice and tips several times a week. Thanks Roz.

  18. #37 by deepamwadds on January 27, 2012 - 1:54 pm

    From Orhan Pamuk’s Snow: “…Each time they went outside they had to make their way past children kicking broken plastic cars, one-armed dolls, or empty bottles and boxes of tea and medicine back and forth across the way. As they sat next to stoves that gave out no heat unless stirred continuously, and electric heaters that ran off illegal power lines, and silent television sets that no one ever turned off, they heard about the never ending woes of Kars.”
    Or: It was a poor area and people had lost their enthusiasm.

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