Show, don’t tell.
If you’re a writer, how many times have you heard it? This seminal advice has been handed down to aspiring writers of all stripes for generations, to the point that its accepted without question and without reservation. How many criticisms have been levied against a piece of writing for violating this rule? And yet, how many times have have great writers in their greatest works violated this very same rule?
Why does show, don’t tell work sometimes, and not others? And why is it we rarely notice when a master of the craft violates this rule?Like many rules in writing, show, don’t tell is rooted in the fundamentals of storytelling. And as with so many fundamentals, many people cling to those initial rules throughout their years of practice because they become ingrained in their thinking as a habit.
It’s much like someone learning to drive a car. Most people are taught to apply the brakes and slow down when going around curves, and to turn the steering wheel to the left if you want to turn left, or to the right if you want to turn right.
Basic knowledge, right?
Except those fundamentals go out the window if you’re trying to drive, say, a high-performance race car. In that case, you may very well use the car’s physics to turn it, and in making a left-hand turn, may actually be twisting the steering wheel to the right in order to make the turn.
Sound ridiculous? Watch the Pixar movie CARS. Paul Newman’s character, Doc Hudson, teaches this odd little trick to Owen Wilson’s character, Lightening McQueen, as the two race in the desert. And lest you think this is just a little bit of Hollywood storytelling with no basis in reality, look up YouTube video of drift racing sometime. Or watch THE FAST & THE FURIOUS 3: TOKYO DRIFT.
The steer-right-to-turn-left method may work on a racetrack, in the hands of a skilled driver, but try it in your average road car on a public street, the technique will either get you in an accident or get you arrested.
Now, let’s look at writing once more. When we’re learning to write, show, don’t tell is a valuable rule that helps us breathe life into our writing. We’ve all seen examples such as these:
Nina was crying.
Ted was angry.
Tears poured down Nina’s cheeks.
Ted slammed his fist against the doorpost.
In the above examples, show is the way to go. No question.
But what happens when we move from basic writing skills to something more advanced? The equivalent of, say, trading that trusty old Camry for a NASCAR-spec late model race car? That’s when we have to look at the rules that got us this far and realize that the rule itself exists for reasons much larger than issues of mechanics.
Fundamentally, writing fiction is the black art of transferring thought or emotion into the minds of readers using nothing more than precise arrangement of words. But storytelling is something more complex, more elusive.
Storytelling is about capturing the attention of an audience from beginning to end.
In theory, there no rules—whatever works, works. But through centuries of refinement, we as writers have the benefit of learning from the trail and error of writers long forgotten, and some who will be remembered as long as our society exists. We have guidelines. We know, roughly, what makes great stories work. And writers of any skill level can benefit from this knowledge.
And while we can admire and appreciate the work of great storytellers throughout history, we cannot learn from them unless we understand why they made the decision they made. In other words, mimicking storytelling devices of a great master won’t necessarily make you a great master, unless you can crawl into their head and understand why they chose the device they used.
One of the biggest demands of storytelling is momentum. Some stories simply do not need to exist in 90,000 words. Some stories should only be told in 40,000 words, some are so big they need 120,000. The biggest danger in leaning on show, don’t tell as a definite rule is it tends to lead the writer into a habit of overwriting.
Have you ever noticed how many classic novels are fairly thin? Capote’s BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. Mattheson’s I AM LEGEND. Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM. Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATZBY. These writers all understood the value of using only as many words as necessary to tell a story. They didn’t write for any publisher’s economy of scale, they wrote the story as efficiently and elegantly as possible. In my opinion, the brevity of these works is one of the factors in their ongoing popularity with readers.
My contention is, sometimes it’s better to tell in a few words rather than show using many words in order to maintain the momentum and brevity of the story.
Allow me to use an example from a novella I’m writing.
This is a 60,000 word story. It’s outlined, I know where it’s going. In fact, it originated as a screenplay of 110 pages. There are no major plot points in the narrative that don’t exist in the screenplay, no filler to inflate the word count. Because of the nature of the story, it’s success depends on momentum. One series of events leads to another, which leads to another, until the characters are faced with a climax that forces them to change their entire outlook on life. My goal is to create a lean, fluid series of events that guides the reader from beginning to end without bogging down in the details.
I recently reached a point in the telling of this story where my cast of characters checks into a motel at 2 a.m. Immediately before checking in, two of these characters engage in fisticuffs in the parking lot. The managers sees them, and later calls the police when a second conflict occurs.
Now, show, don’t tell dictates the check-in process be shown in a scene such as this:
I pushed the door open and walked in beneath a clanking cowbell, greeted by the hard eyes of a fat redneck in a wife-beater who hadn’t shaved in a week. He smoothed the sides of a handlebar mustache and approached a plexiglass window.
“Whudda you want?” he barked.
“Two rooms,” I said.
He breathed in loud, I heard the hiss of air through his nostrils. “How many of you are there?”
It took me a minute to answer. I was so tired my body had become numb. “Five.”
“No.” I glanced back, hoping the dog hadn’t jumped out of the car yet.
The manager breathed loud again. “You ain’t gonna cause no trouble, are you?”
“No. Why would I?”
“Well, I mean, you was out there fightin’ with somebody—”
“That’s my brother. He’s an idiot.” I raised both hands apologetically. “Look, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“It’s just odd, is all. You people, that car. I don’t want no trouble.”
Written as such, this scene would go on for a couple of pages and a few hundred words. And then the main character would go on to have a pivotal confrontation with one of his fellow travelers—his ex-fiancé. Yet given the violent nature of the fight with his estranged brother that preceded check-in, and the importance of his relationship with his ex-fiancé revealed by the confrontation that followed, it did not seem prudent to break up that momentum with an arbitrary scene featuring a flat character of little overall importance to the story.
So, instead of showing the scene above, I wrote the following sentence as a tell:
By the time I finished dealing with the night clerk—who’d seen my scuff up with Billy and acted more than a little reluctant to even give me two rooms—the gas station coffee had long worn off and it took everything in me just to hold my eyes open.
Immediately after, with the tension of the previous conflict still fresh in the reader’s mind, the main character accidentally walks into the wrong room and finds himself face to face with his ex-fiancé, who still wears the engagement ring he bought her years ago.
And such, I maintained the momentum I’d worked so hard to build.
I know I’m no master, but I do strive to understand the craft. And in doing so, I look for ways the true masters weave their stories and try to understand why and how they did so. Telling, I’ve noticed, is an oft overlooked trick because it’s used so skilfully that readers rarely realize they’re not being shown what they think they’re seeing.
And going back to the race car analogy, for most people watching a car race, the experience of watching an 800 horsepower race car navigate a race track doesn’t look much different than their morning commute. And so it’s hard for the average viewer to watch an automobile race and understand the skill it takes to drive such a car fast. They see a car that looks like a lot like the Ford or Toyota parked in their driveway, and they assume there’s not much difference between the two. Writers tend to do the same. After all, even the most ham-fisted among us have access to the same pallet as the masters, the same vocabulary, the same words. We often can appreciate the work of a talented writer without knowing why or how they used those words, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when we become obsessed with ideas such as show, don’t tell, we often fail to understand why showing works better than telling, and the idea of telling becomes taboo altogether.
Sometimes it doesn’t serve the story to show. Sometimes you’re better off telling. And, I hope, you now understand why.