Friday, 1 July 2011

"Show don't tell" - the writing rule that causes most confusion

My wife, though an author under her own name and a ghost writer with over one million books sold, also does a lot of literary consultancy, editing and story polishing. One day, looking over her shoulder as I brought her one of many morning cups of tea, I saw another editor’s notes that she’d been sent. The editor had been working on a short story and had come across this passage:
Gustav had rather quaint ideas about how a lady should behave. To please him, I took to using an ivory cigarette holder and insisting that my champagne be served in a coupe, not a flute.
The editor seized on this as a failure to “show not tell”, and gave an example of how to expand it into a 250-word scene in which Gustav first presses that cigarette holder on the narrator. And that advice was completely wrong. Because the writer had shown, and very elegantly too in only 35 words. The telling version of that passage would have gone something like this:
Gustav had rather quaint ideas about how a lady should behave. To please him, I began behaving in a more sophisticated way.
"I was very afraid." "I am in love." "He dressed elegantly." That's the kind of writing you expect to find on a post-it on the front of the fridge, not in a novel. But here the writer hadn't told. She'd actually used the real strength of prose, which makes it a more powerful storytelling medium than any other. Turning those 35 words into a scene not only created a distraction that derailed the chapter - no, much worse, it smells fake. We know that one person's influence on another is usually more subtle than that. It doesn't happen in the course of one scene, and storytellers only think in those terms because they are used to movies.

There are two writing rules that often, as here, get confused. “Show don't tell” is a corollary of Forster’s “Only connect!” (the most important rule of all) and it means that the writer shouldn’t just communicate a fact, but must also make us feel it. “The room was very big.” Well, “The room was as big as a cathedral nave” at least evokes a mental image, though possibly, “The room was so big that it made Jeff feel as if he were a child being led into a classroom for the first time” is better because more personal.

The other rule, which I suspect the editor who commented on that short story was thinking of, is “make a scene of it”. This is a lot less of a hard and fast rule. In There Will Be Blood, for example, we might expect a scene of Daniel Plainview dragging himself back to town after breaking his leg in the shaft where he’s just struck oil. Instead, Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer/director, just cuts straight to Plainview on a stretcher watching the men he’s hired tally up his newfound wealth.

You’ve got to be a little bit careful about breaking the “make a scene of it” rule. Audiences can be mistrustful of things that happen off-stage and that they only get to hear about later. It’s safe enough if the scene you’re skipping would only have covered routine details that the reader or viewer can fill in for themselves. For example, at the beginning of Mirabilis #3 (below, fullscreen it to read) we cut straight to Jack standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. You don't need to see him pack a bag in Battersea, go and get his ticket from the Royal Mythological Society, dash down to the south coast and catch a boat – all that is obvious. But if we’d missed out the earlier scene of Gus escaping from Bedlam and just referred to it in a later episode, you’d have wondered if the info was kosher. And quite right too.

Show not tell comes in when, for instance, Jack balks at shaking Gerard’s hand in issue 1. Or later, on the beach at Selsey, when he remembers himself as a child watching his parents go off in a boat. Hopefully you empathized more with Jack then than if he’d simply stated his feelings – though indeed, dialogue can show instead of tell:
"This is it."

"This is what?"

"If I take one more step it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been."

(Frodo gives Sam a pat on the shoulder.)

"Come on, Sam."
The dialogue there is showing. It connects us with Sam even more effectively than a wide aerial shot of the two little fellows slogging across a big field, and certainly more than any factual statement of distance would have done.

My wife, by the way, has a thousand writing tips like these and she explains them a whole lot better. (I know, I know – but I’m a fiction writer. When it comes to talking about the rules of the craft I’m as articulate as Gort the robot.) Anyway, you can read more of Roz’s tips here.


  1. This is a great post because it picks up on many of the subtleties of show not tell that writers and editors often miss. Yes, it's not as simple as just turning everything into a scene (being selective is crucial). And what's particularly interesting is the way you highlight how showing can be used effectively in narrative summary (often cited as the opposite of showing).

    That said, I think the example above about Gustav and his (wife? girlfriend?) is worth unpacking a bit more. This is presumably a major character (because it's our narrator) undergoing a fundamental change because of another character's desires and expectations. The prose is elegant but very brief; it gives the sense that this change has been equally brief (or, perhaps, easy to implement). It also gives no sense of how the narrator feels about having had to make this adjustment to her behaviour.

    Whilst I agree that using one scene to show this would feel contrived (because it would suffer from the same problem, that of implying that the change is sudden and unambiguous) a viable alternative might be to weave the changes in her behaviour (and character?) and her feelings about them in only very gradually, allowing the reader to sense that she is being influenced by increments and gauge her reactions to the process.

    Having waffled on about the above, I also think there's a necessary distinction between short story writing where it's crucial to convey things succinctly and elegantly, and novel writing, where you have more space to develop characters and relationships gradually.

    All very interesting - thanks for the discussion points!

  2. Good points, Kathryn. Without seeing the whole story, it's not really possible to judge how much detail and how many scenes are necessary. What we can say is that the reader must be shown the route between the story beats, which I think of as like sections of a bridge between the supports which are the new stages of the characters' situation or development.