What does it mean when writers talk about “show don’t tell” and how do you use this advice to improve your writing? Novelist Steven Erikson provides some valuable insights.
Someone dropped me a note to ask about ‘show don’t tell’ in fiction writing, and rather than reply to him specifically I thought I would discuss the subject here, since it is a principle that lies at the heart of good writing.
Fiction, and I would suggest poetry as well, is all about sleight of hand. What the writer knows is not the same as what the writer is prepared to reveal to the reader. Every detail considered demands a decision: does it go in or doesn’t it? What is the effect of something acting upon a scene when it remains invisible, unspoken? What is the effect of revealing it, including it in the narrative? How can a scene carry more weight than what’s set down on the page?
Imagine starting a puzzle in reverse. It lies complete on the tabletop, and now you begin removing pieces, while still ensuring that the subject illustrated in that puzzle remains coherent should anyone walk into the room and glance at it. How many pieces can you remove, and how long does it take before you begin weighing thoughtfully the extraction of the next piece? You reach a point where pulling the next one collapses any hope of comprehension, at which point it’s time to stop. It’s hovering on the very edge right now; let concentration slip and the image dissolves.
This is how I learned to write short stories, and it is probably my failing in that I carried that over into my novel writing, effectively unmodified as a writing technique.
Language can ever only suggest. It is descriptive but that description is always selective. At its most basic level, it is marks on a page or a spoken word structured and defined by rules of syntax and other stuff having to do with cognition, pattern-recognition, and so on. If one were to attempt to write a scene drawn from reality, the potential level of description is infinite, and for all the detail given, right down to, say, the molecular level, that multitude of words will not achieve what the simple act of seeing will achieve (in an instant).
Yet writers use language to invite a reader into a collection of scenes, bound by an illusory but comforting narrative thread, and in the description of these scenes, perhaps cursory, perhaps detailed, a reader gains an impression of that place, those characters, the atmosphere and, possibly, the meaning behind it all.
I know, all this is sounding obvious, but what isn’t so obvious is what drives the decision-making process when constructing that narrative. You want to suggest the image in the puzzle, but you cannot reasonably include all those pieces. The more you ‘tell’ the less you suggest; the less you suggest the more you insist; the more you insist the less you trust your reader; the less you trust your reader the more likely you are to lose them.
This is, of course, assuming you want to engage your reader on as many levels as possible. It can be argued that you may not want to; you may instead want them to ride along, effortlessly, with only the minimal engagement, in, say, a tale of unquestioning (and unquestioned) heroes and bad guys. In this case, you ‘tell’ to get out of the way the necessary details, so that you can get back to entertaining the reader (there is a place for this, no question, and not just as whole narratives, but also as timely segments within a narrative – when the shit hits the fan in terms of action, for example; although, ideally, you want to have gotten all the background stuff out of the way before then). Some readers don’t want to work hard, and a writer who makes demands will lose such readers: it’s the bitter pay-off and believe you me, I know all about that one.
But in terms of narrative, the real danger of ‘telling’ is twofold. On the one hand there is the matter of pace. Exposition not bound to a particular point-of-view can result in what we all know as ‘info-dumps’. They are stylistically awkward; they interrupt the story’s flow; and they impose an authorial will and the longer that will holds forth, the worse it gets.
The second danger is the undermining of the author’s authority: info-dumps are a failing of the author’s skill. What information needs to get in there has to do so almost seamlessly, and it works best when serving another purpose (exposition providing a pause between dialogue, for example, to stretch out an exchange or lend weight to words just spoken; or as a framing device for a scene; or to put in place objects of symbolic significance, including the proverbial gun-on-the-wall). In the best examples of this (see the first few pages of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber“) the exposition is terse, flat and quickly done-and-out-of-the-way. It is ‘telling’ at its bare minimum.
So, here’s a vague rule. Physical details needed to set a scene can be ‘told,’ but it is best to do so via the point of view of a character in that scene. I note this as being ‘vague’ because sometimes the narrative voice is itself a character, a shaper of how events are supposed to be seen, but that’s a different kind of storytelling.
If details are linked to a point of view, a character in the scene, then it can serve more than one function: it can tell the reader something about that character (what interests them, what’s relevant to them, what they’re deliberately avoiding in their own description, and so on). But once you do this, you quickly discover the limitations imposed by a particular point of view. A character who is, say, a fisherman, who walks onto a factory floor where cars are made, cannot reasonably tell you details about the machinery at work (unless you’ve previously established that, say, that character once worked there). You are limited by what the character knows, or is purported to know. This is not a bad thing: you can work it to your advantage.
All of this is prelude to talking about showing not telling, but it hopefully sets up my principle point, which begins and ends with the stance a writer takes in delivering a narrative. To ‘show’ your story is to respect the reader’s ability to read into the narrative all that is necessary to make sense of the scene, and the story. It’s to stay ‘collected’ at all times, ensuring that the beast (that unruly bag of skin crammed full of all that you know) never runs loose under you.
There are always at least two levels of communication going on in a story: what appears on the page and what doesn’t. Both are essential to a good story, and the purest tension is the one set up between the two, between the written and the unwritten (just as in real life, if you listen in on a nearby conversation, your sense of it is formed by the spoken and unspoken). Just as good dialogue weighs more heavily on the unspoken, so too good writing weighs more heavily on the unwritten.
This is where, at least until you’ve got the knack, editing comes in. Read over what you’ve written and be ruthless in what is extraneous, what can go (no matter how well written); and in this way of thinking about your own work, you will exercise your sense of what’s important to the story you’re telling (the famous workshop question: what’s at stake?), and it may be that you begin this process not actually knowing the answer to that question, and that’s fine. You’ll find it, eventually. The process determines the answer.
If, on the other hand, you ‘tell’ your reader, the first thing that will change in your writing is the tone of the narrative. It becomes insistent, and can come across as authoritarian (without being reassuring); and because the pace also slows down, those sections of ‘telling’ become more obtrusive to the reader, and the flow becomes turgid and pained.
I recall an exercise I was given years ago when I first began writing. Basically, I was challenged to write dialogue without any emotional tags, yet still convey the emotional context of the words being spoken. It’s rather hard to do. Instead of ‘he said defensively’ it was ‘he said, crossing his arms and looking away.’ The former example is telling the reader; the latter is showing. The former is obvious and insistent; the latter is suggestive and subtle.
Exercises for theatre students cover this ground in much the same manner: for the writer, however, the task is to convey the gesture and its context through description without authorial commentary. You just state it flat out and leave it at that. The reader ‘reads’ the emotional context and the meaning from the gesture.
One can become very terse writing this style, and personally I do find it preferable (my early novels had a lot of the ‘telling’ stuff, as far as I was concerned, but it was at the time deemed useful and ‘reassuring,’ in that it was a technique common to the genre. With successive novels, however, I slowly swung back to that terse approach, to the ‘showing’ over the ‘telling,’ and admittedly was a much happier camper).
The key to successfully doing this is to become a camera, recording what you see (while knowing more under the surface) and only what you see. You can always dip into someone’s head for getting at what’s hidden from view, but if you do, be sure that you hold to the limits of that character’s point of view, their specific beliefs and interests, motivations and fears, etc. Internal monologue is guided by un-uttered conclusions and proceeds accordingly, on its own slick surface of thought, and should emotion grow fierce, then words should fail – even internal ones – because, well, they always do.
Some readers of the above might get pissed and conclude from the style conveyed that I’m arrogant and prone to pontification. I would suggest their reaction is because I’ve just used up a few thousand words ‘telling’ you about ‘showing-not-telling.’ If you want to see me ‘showing’ instead, read my stories. I’m not be flippant here: my point was to ‘show’ how ‘telling’ can irritate a reader, even when the author doesn’t want to.
Sleight of hand.
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Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Steven Erikson’s Notes on a Crisis Part XI: Show Don't Tell
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part X: If it Hurts Like Hell
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part IX: Back to the Craft of Writing
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part VIII: With Regret
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part VII: Scraping Hard at the Veil