“Show don’t tell” is an old piece of advice which a lot of tutors use to get their students writing with power and effectiveness. It’s perhaps most important in writing poetry but it’s a useful idea to have in mind when you are writing prose fiction or script. Of course, many famous published writers break the rule, if it can be called a rule, but then the first rule of any art or craft is to be able to follow the rules before you start breaking them. The most commonly quoted example of the “Show don’t tell” advice is what Chekhov wrote to his brother in 1888: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
We could find all sorts of parallels to this:
“Don’t tell me the child is excited, show me how she is pulling at her mother’s sleeve.”
“Don’t tell me John’s soul is heavy, show me John sitting in his armchair, his eyes wide open, staring at nothing.”
“Don’t tell me the view is stunning, show me the dinosaur-backed mountains stretching into the distance.”
Try making some more up for yourself, dealing with people, animals, places, objects; and with situations, actions events. It’s a useful exercise and when you get to the point where using images rather than explanations is part of your intuitive practice, you can then allow yourself to break the rule on the odd occasion and turn it around so that you “Tell, don’t show.” However, if you wrote a piece of prose or a poem, that was all “tell” and no “show”, it would come across as incredibly boring, pedantic, and would run the risk of sounding like a lecture or a piece of propaganda.
The important thing is to realise that effective writing, especially in poetry, arises out of images rather than explanations. So you need to be able to conjure powerful images and then trust them to carry the message of what you want to say. The parallel in scriptwriting would be to avoid dialogue that explains, and use instead dialogue that furthers the action, or is part of the action.
Sometimes the need to explain can’t be avoided. Shakespeare used explanation frequently in the opening of his plays to set the scene. See for example, the first scene of The Winter’s Tale, where one courtier is telling another courtier what the dramatic setting is between the two kings, Leontes and Polixenes. David Hare did something similar at the beginning of his play, Skylight, where two characters spend a long time reminding each other of things they have done together in the past. It’s a technique for allowing the audience to find out something about events before the play actually opens. But it runs the risk of boring the audience and not getting them hooked.
In prose fiction, the advice is usually to bring your back information in incidentally and not make your first paragraph or chapter sound like a police or social worker’s report You might begin writing with a good deal of telling but when you redraft, you need to consider how , or even remind yourself as author of what your story is about and who your characters are. Much of this information can come in incidentally or be left to later in the structure of the story.
If you are writing prose narrative or script, you will sooner or later move out of the “tell” mode because you are bound to have some action or argumentative dialogue which will break away from explanations. But in poetry, if you are not careful, you could write a whole poem which tells the reader what the narrator/character feels or sees, for example, without any images which show what that character is feeling or seeing. Chekhov wasn’t a poet but he knew the importance of using images in storytelling
And that brings me to the question of observation as an essential activity to take place before writing. Sometimes the observation may be imagined. We might want to describe a desert scene, but we can’t all fly to the Sahara before starting to write. However, we can do a lot of our observation online with virtual reality which allows us to observe natural objects or creatures up closer than we could actually do in real life. I guess that most visual artists use observation as a starting point and using your eyes and drawing something is no bad starting point for writers either. When I do writing workshops with children, I very often get them to observe something and then draw it before they start writing. Sometimes they object:
“Please, Miss, this is a writing workshop not an art workshop.” I usually reply, “This is an observation workshop.”
We can learn a lot about writing from the way children’s picture books are set out. The illustrations in good children’s books are part of the storytelling – they are the “Show, don’t tell” part that has to be verbally expressed in adult books but nevertheless, even in adult books the picture can be represented by a verbal image not a verbal explanation. A good children’s book to look at is Shirley Hughes’ Alfie Gets in First. The story hinges both verbally and visually on the fact that toddler Alfie runs in to the house before his mother and little sister. And then the front door closes and Mum is outside without a key and Alfie is inside and too short to reach the door handle. The inside of the spine between the two opposite pages of the book represents the way Alfie is separated from his mother and sister.
An interesting exercise for writers is to take a children’s picture book and see if it is possible to represent one of the pictures in an image using words without too much explanation. To help your, remember that effective images rely on nouns and verbs, explanations rely on adjectives, adverbs and abstract nouns. Images rely on details and particularisation, explanations rely on generalisations.
Image credit: OCA student Angela Johnson
Also published on Medium.