Writing Wednesday: Showing, Not Telling
Writing Wednesday: Showing, Not Telling “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”—Anton Chekov “SHOW, don’t TELL.”
In my junior year of high school I w
In my junior year of high school, I was thrilled to be able to finally take Dr. Stocking’s writing class, but not so thrilled to frequently see this message emblazoned across my work in his thin but bold handwriting. Show, don’t tell. When I first saw that, I was confused; show, don’t tell. I didn’t get it—what as the difference?
Dr. Stocking, a giant bespectacled, bow-tie wearing man with a gentle voice that didn’t match his height, was more than happy to explain it to me. “You write very well,” he said kindly. “But you frequently slip into this mode where you’re telling the reader what they’re supposed to be looking at or what they’re supposed to be feeling. Don’t tell them … show them. Illustrated it so they can feel it, see it. Make it so the reader feels like they’re there.”
It took me a bit to fully understand what he meant, but one day I was looking over a story I had written for class and all at once, I understood: the paragraphs that described the scenes and actions were very powerful. The ones that just kind of stated what was going on had no punch at all and were very bland and passive. The scenes that were showing me the images and feelings made me care, while the point-blank stated scenes made me feel like I was getting talked at. The illustrated “shown” scenes sounded like they were written by someone who had developed their skill over a long period of time, whereas the “told” scenes sounded like they were written by a sixth grader.
Confused? That’s okay, let me give you two examples:
They walked down to the river. It was cold out so it felt like it took them a long time to get there and they were tired. When they got on top of the bank they saw the river water was up high because of all the rain. It was flowing very fast.
Together, they trudged down to the river. The biting chill in the air made the trek seem to take much longer than it usually would, and both of them were exhausted by the effort. Reaching the top of the bank, they saw the river below them, swollen by the storm’s downpour. The dark water snarled as it rushed its way onward.
So in the first scene, the reader is being told what’s going on: the unnamed characters are walking to a river on a cold day. While the description is to the point, it doesn’t make the reader very interested in what’s going on. The “told” scene is the prose equivalent of a stick figure drawing. In the second version, the reader is given more detail: the characters “trudged” to the river—so therefore this requires more effort than just walking. The air is so cold it seems to bite at them—this is a particularly chilly day. The walk seemed to take longer because of the cold and they were both exhausted—this is ordinarily a short trek but it’s so cold out that the characters are expending more energy to get to their destination, and we know that they’re not just tired, they’re exhausted. They reach the top of the bank and saw the river below—a more active description than “got on top” and having the characters look down at the river helps the reader visualize what the area looks like. The river was swollen from the storm—more dramatic than the previous version, adds to the description. The dark water snarled as it rushed by—the reader senses that the river is discolored and moving so quickly that the characters (and the reader) can hear it.
This is also important in showing emotions:
She was scared and stepped back away from the monster, trying not to touch it. She tried to scream. She was so scared she wanted to cry.
Reeling back in terror, she drew her hands in close to her body, not wanting to touch the thing’s slimy skin. A scream hitched in her throat as tears began to blur her vision.
In the first scene, we’re told that the character is in a presence of a monster, that she’s extremely afraid, doesn’t want to touch it and is ready to cry. The lack of description makes the reader unafraid for the character; okay, so she’s scared, so what? In the second version we see the character reel back—she’s moving backwards so quickly that she’s barely in control of her balance. She draws her hands in close to her body—the reader sees that the character is trying to withdraw, maybe to protect herself. She doesn’t want to touch the thing’s slimy skin—the reader sees that the character is confronted by a “thing” (which I know doesn’t sound highly descriptive, but this illustrates that we don’t know what the creature is, which makes it more frightening) that has gross skin covered in slime that she doesn’t want to touch, and how can we blame her? A scream hitches in her throat—she’s so scared that she can’t even get a scream out, and the “hitch” hints that she experiences a little bit of pain as well. Tears began to blur her vision—stronger than just saying that she wanted to cry, by stating that tears are blurring her vision, the reader now knows that the character is not only scared enough to cry, but that the unfallen tears are making it hard for her to see, adding to the danger.
It’s also important when describing landscapes, plants, houses, cars, whatever. Don’t tell me it’s the oldest tree in the neighborhood, show me that it’s gnarled and has a big chunk of the bark ripped off because somebody skidded on the ice one winter and banged into it. Don’t tell me the house has fire damage, show me the boarded-up windows and the black smoke stains stretching across the walls like straining fingers. Don’t tell me that the car is red, show me that it’s a sparkling metallic red, or a shiny tomato red, or that it used to be red but it’s mostly just patchy rust spots now. Like Chekov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Just a word of warning though; don’t go overboard on the descriptions either. Especially with the physical descriptions of your main characters. I know one thing that drives me up the wall EVERY SINGLE TIME is when a writer goes into way too much detail about their character’s description when we first meet them—I get so bored, I usually wind up skipping that paragraph(s) altogether. I don’t need to know that your character has jet black hair the color of a stealth bomber flying through the dead of night, that they have jade green eyes the color of a foaming Mediterranean sea in late spring, skin of alabaster white as smooth as mother of pearl, that they have a scar on their left pinky toe from the time when they were five years old that they scraped against a nail that was protruding out of their kitchen floor—gaaaaaah! ENOUGH! These descriptions are good, but packed into one paragraph it’s information overload. Quit showing off and get on with the story already! (I’ll go into more depth on character descriptions later on.)
There are exceptions to the “show don’t tell rule” though; if you’re writing books aimed at younger readers, say 3rd through maybe 5th grade or so, you don’t have to spend as much time describing scenes because you don’t want to make reading tedious for kids who are just really starting to learn how to do it. When writing in a first person point of view (stories were the main character is the narrator, using “I” statements—sorry if this seems obvious, but there are actually quite a few people who get confused on point of views) and you’re going for a less refined tone—say your character is more Forrest Gump than Sherlock Holmes—your character is likely going to be “telling” the readers what’s going on; the average guy is more likely to say “the river was flowing really fast” whereas a more educated or spiritually deeper character might say “the river was roaring as it flew past.”
(And since I know there are those of you out there who are smugly thinking this: yes, Hemingway was famous for his sparse descriptions, but he still was showing his readers what was going on. I swear the guy had some kind of supernatural ability to do that.) Oh, and before I finish for today, just a reminder—don’t stress out about it. Write the story first, then go back and see what you can punch up. Trying to get the descriptions right the first time around will stress you out, but the more you practice the easier and more natural it becomes. Trust me on this.