By Jon Clapier
If you have taken any creative writing courses, then you have already been beaten about the head and ears with multiple repetitions of “Show, don’t tell!” The internet is full of articles and quotes from authors and editors espousing the careful use of “showing’” language when moving a story forward. And the reasoning is sound. In most instances it is better to show than tell.
When I read through the slush pile of Fiction Vortex submissions it is often the over-use of telling that causes me to reject a story. Crafting a short story and having a reader enter into a world that you have created without resorting to telling may seem difficult, but there are many times when the information that an author withholds is exactly what compels the reader onward, and in my own experience the “I gotta know what happens” feeling is what makes a story great. So if you are new to writing then I hope you can gain some insight from the following article, and if you are a veteran writer then I hope you can enjoy rehearsing what you already know. As a wise man once said, “We don’t need to learn as often as we need to be reminded.”
Let us step back in time to when I wrote my first book. The idea was brilliant (really!); the characters were suitably heroic, and the action intense (or so I thought). I trembled with delight at My Creation and couldn’t wait to share it with some of my friends. They weren’t nearly as happy with the story as I thought they should be, and although they gave me plenty of encouragement, as good friends should, my belief in my future as a writer began a slow swirl around the bowl.
It wasn’t until years later, after I had once again been bitten by the writing bug and authored multiple stories, that I re-read that old “wonderful” tale and discovered that it stank to high heaven. The reason lay in a large part to my tendency to tell, not show. The ideas and the characters from that first attempt are usable, and I am currently writing a novel based on them. I may even some day try to salvage the entire one-hundred and ten thousand words of the original. (Yes, I said one-hundred and ten thousand!)
So what did I do wrong? I’ll tell you, slight pun intended.
When I wanted to have a character do an action I simply said it. For instance, “Bill picked up an old axe handle, and held it ready to swing.” Is there anything wrong with stating something like that? Of course not. Sometimes it is not only adequate but desirable to tell instead of show. BUT, compare to this, “Bill’s hand groped madly in the darkness of the tool shed, finding a length of splintered axe handle that he gripped with both hands, determined to go down swinging.”
Both sentences conveyed the same information, but the second one gave a hint of expected danger as well as urgency. Only the second example had any emotion.
Imagine going to a movie, the lights come up, the opening credits begin to roll, and then a narrator’s voice begins to tell you what you are seeing. “There are words running up the screen. If you read them you will discover that this is actually episode four, which is quite amazing as it is the first episode to be made into a movie, thus insinuating that there are at least three other episodes. Now there is a really big star cruiser flying overhead. It’s really big.” A scenario like that would quickly become annoying. That is the same frustration a reader feels with non-stop telling in a written work. It is commonly referred to as an info-dump.
There are many reasons that authors fall into the pit of the info-dump, but the most common is the desire to let the reader know what the author does about the really cool society/culture/world in the book. In almost every instance, instead of telling the reader about your society/culture/world, you should simply show the story and let the environment become apparent as the story unfolds. Remember, characters and emotions drive the story, and it is okay to not tell your reader everything.
Ernest Hemmingway had an idea about show and tell that has been referred to as the Iceberg Theory. It was propounded in his non-fiction book, Death in the Afternoon, which is about bull-fighting in Spain. (And an excellent read, if you ever get the chance.)
‘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 on an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.’
—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon
When J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his masterful Lord of the Rings, he based it on an entire world that he created with languages and customs and a full history for multiple races. He didn’t try to tell us every detail of what he had created in the first chapter, but most of it came out in the course of the story.
If you need to let the reader know that it is illegal to scratch your nose in your world then you could say, “Lisa’s nose itched, but she knew it was illegal to touch her nose.” Or you might say, “A tiny itch began at the top of Lisa’s nose, tickling its way down to the tip. Her eyes watered, and she subconsciously raised her hand. Realization hit her, and she whipped her hand back down to the safety of her lap, terrified that someone might have seen.”
In the second example I didn’t expressly say that it was illegal to scratch a nose, but the reader knows that something is odd, and it could have bad repercussions for the character. The problem could be anything from her hand being on fire to her having a nose the size of a Volkswagen. Many times not saying everything is the key to keeping interest.
Enough of my cheesy examples. Robin Hobb, author of the Farseer Trilogy, has this to say:
I think the only way to explain this writing precept is to ‘show, don’t tell’.
Telling: I got on the bus. It started up right away. It was very crowded and smelled bad. There wasn’t an empty seat, so I had to stand for fifteen minutes until I reached my stop.
Showing: The lurch of the #59 bus sent me staggering into a whiskery man who enjoyed both cigars and sardines but eschewed deodorant. I grabbed the back of a seat to right myself. Beside me in the crowded aisle, a sticky little girl waved her lollipop as she conducted herself through six repetitions of the alphabet song, one for every two blocks we travelled.
If your protagonist is performing a simple action, try substituting sensory information rather than simply telling the action.
Instead of: I sat down in an old arm chair.
Write: The upholstery on the armchair was worn and slightly greasy.
Instead of: I ate some clam chowder.
Write: My teeth grated on a bit of sand in one of the clams in the chowder.
Instead of: I ordered a hot dog from a street vendor. It wasn’t properly cooked.
Write: I found the cold spot in the half-cooked wiener I bought from a street vendor.
“Showing” can also be tasting, feeling, smelling, hearing or touching. Use sensory data to put your reader into your story rather than telling him what he can see outside the window of words.
Robin Hobb knows what she’s talking about; she’s sold over a million copies of her first nine books.
Most of my favorite books, and I would think most of yours, are the ones that you get into and almost forget that you’re reading. Instead you flow along with the story, riding its highs and lows and enjoying both. If there are times that the author inserts some telling, it is unobtrusive and serves a definite, short-lived purpose. If you must tell, keep it brief and work it into the story so that no one really knows that they have been fooled into learning something about your world. And remember just because you know something about your story doesn’t mean you need to tell it.
As with most rules of writing, “Show, don’t tell” can be broken successfully. Showing can increase word count substantially. For the short-story writer this can be problematic, especially if you are showing every aspect of an adventure: choosing a camp-site, starting the fire, selecting the right roasting sticks, seasoning the rabbit that was caught with a snare made from the raw-hide made from a young bull who was slaughtered last Tuesday to feed the lemmings so they wouldn’t run into the ocean. Blah, blah, blah.
Dialogue can be a good place to slip in some information but be careful of the characters that already know something but are given information by other characters, “As you know, Bill, if you stay here while the killer is loose and in the mostly deserted neighborhood, you could be in danger.”
Now I’ve gone and done it, I returned to Bill in the tool shed. I hope he still has his axe handle, because he is there as part of a religious requirement of all males who turn nineteen in San Salsa Dar, the land where he lives, which makes it possible for the very survival of its people and culture, as well as the awesome warrior society, the Kubriks, that threaten to take the gilded scepter from the hallowed Queen of the Ice-downs, Gina, who has reigned since before the time of the Wolf-Tsars and trampled the uprising of the Shadow-Driven Mutants that carried the golden plague to the western outposts of the Kariri. Her shadow was captured by the Mutants and forced to be bitten by a moose once, really.
Careful. I almost lost my readers.