Show me don’t tell me

No, not those mechanics!

No, not those mechanics!

Once a writer grasps the mechanics of composition, it’s time to sit back, fire up the Cuban cigar, and let that novel write itself. It’s all just paragraph breaks and dialog tags anyway. Right?

Wrong! Once you acquire the mechanics, it’s time to animate your prose and turn your story from a bunch of words on a page to a living organism. And how is that done? We’ve all heard writing instructors say those three magic words, and they aren’t lying: Show, don’t tell.

As writers, we must paint a picture with words. We have to put our readers in the room (or spaceship, dragon’s lair, submarine, etc.) with our characters and make the action happen around them. If we expound on backstories, describe past events in depth, and list details, we’re telling. That’s easy but boring. We need to show.

The irony, from my experience, is that experts often tell us to show, but they don’t show us. If you sometimes struggle with how to take your “tell” and make it “show,” perhaps the following example will help. I just made this sequence up, so I hope you appreciate that today’s post has value-added content in the form of a fiction vignette. Who else in the blogosphere gives you free content? That’s what I’d like to know!

Wait… all blogs are free? Oh. I just thought… Uh, let’s just get on with it, shall we?

Here’s my vignette in “tell” form. Try to stay awake:

Stars

By Joe Bland

Clark had been staying late at the bar with his buddies every night for weeks, playing cards and drinking beer. He kept promising Andrea that he would stop; that we would start coming home early, spend more time with her, and try to make things like they were in the beginning of their marriage. He wanted to make it right, because he still loved her, even if their relationship had grown stale.

He meant to leave early tonight! He really did. But he and his boys were drinking and laughing and having a great time. He didn’t care that he lost money in the poker game.

Andrea would care; she’d be pissed. Just after she got done being pissed about him getting home at three in the morning, which he was about to do yet again. He pulled in the driveway, got out, and tiptoed up the porch stairs, trying not to make noise but failing.

Andrea liked to watch TV and sometimes fell asleep in front of it. Clark hoped that was the case tonight. He peeked through the window to the living room, but it was dark in the house. She must have gone to bed. He’d catch hell tomorrow, but at least he would be able to sneak in.

He located the house key on his key ring, trying not to make jingling noises as he did so, and unlocked the door. He slipped quietly inside and closed it, then listened to hear if Andrea was stirring. He was reaching for the light switch when…

Sorry, I was getting bored with all that telling and became worried you were, too. My mechanics as a writer are sound enough that the tale was easy to follow, but who would want to follow it?

Let’s try “showing” the vignette instead. Notice how we can convey every piece of information in the “tell” version without repeating a single line from above or resorting to exposition:

Stars

By Me

Clark jammed the shifter into ‘park’ and cut the engine as fast as he could. Why are pickup trucks so much damned louder at three in the morning than at three in the afternoon?

He stared at the house, looking for signs of life. Quiet as a graveyard, he thought. Keeping his eyes on the upstairs bedroom window, he spit the wintergreen gum into the wrapper and stuck the wad in the ashtray.

She’s still smell the booze, but he had to try.

Clark turned the handle downward, slowly, and nudged the door with his elbow. The dented sheet metal popped and he grimaced. He shot another glance at the house… still nothing going on.  He crept out, swiveled his head as if about to commit a crime, and then pressed the driver’s door shut with his shoulder.

Do driveways stones always make so many snaps and pops? He hopped over to the grassy side and made for the porch steps, whispering, “jeezuss,” when the stair creaked. He shook his head. How come these sounds never conspired against him when he got home at a normal time?

From the porch, he crouched before the side window to the living room, hoping to see the flickering of a TV left on and Andrea passed out in the couch. He cupped his hands against the cool glass to block the moon’s reflection and peered through. The couch was empty, the afghan folded into a perfect square. Too perfect.

Shit. She was going to kill him tomorrow. Especially when she discovers how much he lost in the poker game.

He rubbed his hand print from the glass with his sleeve – why leave evidence? – and reached into his pocket, clutching the keys tightly to silence them. He squinted to confirm he was using the correct one, swept himself silently into the house, and shut the door, thanking God for inventing the WD-40 he’d sprayed onto the hinges a week earlier.

He stood. Save for the hum of the fridge, the house was black and still and silent. Andrea was upstairs, asleep, dreaming of killing him, probably. Rather than fumble in the dark and knock something over, he decided to take the risk of turning on the florescent light over the sink. He ran his fingers across the wall, feeling for the switch, trying to avoid the coffee can full of pens.

The throwing star pinned his sleeve to the sheet rock before his brain even registered the whooshing sound. He yanked free and turned, ready to run for the truck, but realized his keys were no longer in his hand.

The ceiling-fan light over the kitchen table flickered to life. He froze, gripping the door knob, and looked behind him across the room. Andrea stood in the archway to the living room, dressed in billowing black, her index finger poking through the ring and swinging the keys back and forth.

“Looking for these?”

Clark turned to face her, glancing quickly at his empty hand. “How did you-”

She unleashed a second star, which imbedded in the door frame a quarter inch from his right ear. “You forget you marry ninja?”

Oh shit. She told him she was retired.

Clark fell to his knees. “Baby. I can explain! Sylvester… you know Sly… he started having stomach cramps. Me and the other guys, we took him to the hospital.”

Andrea crossed her arms. “Don’t bullshit me. I got no shortage of ninja stars!”

“It’s true! Sly is in the ER, getting his appendix out. The other guys stayed, but I said I couldn’t stand to be away from my baby another minute, so I-”

She kicked the door to the basement and it fell open. In the stairway, a large net dangled, imprisoning three men, a six pack of Milwaukee’s Best, and several playing cards.

“These guys, you mean?”

Sylvester, his face smashed against the netting, managed a feeble wave.

Clark’s eyes welled. He bowed his head. Ninja punishment was legendary. And swiftly chosen.

Andrea stood over him. “You take me to outlet mall every weekend for six month!”

He nodded.

“You get Brazilian wax. I like you smooth down there.”

Clark whimpered.

“And…. My mother stay with us for one year!”

The neighborhood dogs howled at the unearthly cry issuing from the little blue Cape Cod on Sullivan Street. It’s the place all the kids call, “The House of Flying Stars.”

All right. Maybe I got carried away there, and I haven’t taken time to refine it. But I hope that by showing the vignette instead of telling it, I brought it to life just a little bit. Yes, it was way harder to write than the “tell” version, but nobody said this writing thing was a cake walk.

 ****************************

 For more about showing not telling, here’s this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rush singing the lead track from their Presto album from 1989:

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30 responses to “Show me don’t tell me

  • Blue88journal

    Very cool…’showing, not telling’ is always the key to pulling your reader in. (And Rush rocks) Three thumbs up EJB!

  • feminineocean

    Yes, it’s that work in the telling – that makes a good story.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Great post, Eric! I especially enjoyed the Rush video. Show vs. tell is one of my biggest struggles when trying to weave in bits of backstory ~ great example!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for reading! This was a silly story, of course, but when I’m playing it straight, I try to tell the characters’ stories through their actions. Even in the example above, it wasn’t necessary to say that Clark was out late, drinking with his friends or that he was worried about his wife being mad. The house is dark, he’s covering his breath with gum, he’s checking to see if she’s awake. The reader can fill in the rest.

  • Derek

    I’m not a writer but this is the best blog post I’ve ever read. The reason being is Rush is my favorite band and I’m so happy they finally made it to the R & R Hall of Fame!

    • ericjbaker

      Well thanks. I’m thinking of posting more Rush videos now!

      Their entry is into the R-n-R HoF was way overdue, but it was also a badge of honor to be, by far, the most legendary band to be excluded. Either way, Rush is unique in the history of the record industry. There’s no one else like them.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Very amusing differentiation between showing and telling. 🙂

    The only disclaimer I would add is that if one “shows” everything, the novel will likely end up twice as long. I think it’s permissible to “tell” sometimes to quickly move the story along and get you to the next stop — the next big “show” scene. I prefer to add two more magic words to that literary golden rule: Show what’s important, don’t tell.

    • ericjbaker

      Indeed. In a novel-length story, it’s necessary to move bits along with some well placed “tell.” In a short story, (assuming, for the sake of the discussion, we are trying to keep the length down), I’d rather present fewer events vividly.

      Perhaps I’m overdoing it, but I had a story rejected last year because of “too much exposition.” The story had exactly one sentence of exposition. It was toward the end, though.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    That “showing,” was brilliant, I was taking notes, at least until it turned into a scary Quentin Tarantino script. “I like you smooth down there?

    You know what? I quit going to my writer’s group. A bunch of new, established writers came into the class. They turned into a bunch of wolves during critiques. You know how I tend to be excessively descriptive in details? The group review basically shredded of my writing submissions to pieces. The best writer told me, and she was no diplomat, that my piece made her “want to vomit.” My self esteem went down and I have not gone back.

    Why do people hate descriptive writing so much? Am I “telling?” I don’t understand. Anyway I need to get back in the groove. I have gone on hiatus. I am hiding.

    So, I have been taking online training for video editing. By the way..have you had any time to hang out with Tony?Carnegie Hall is down the road about 3 miles and to the right.

    • ericjbaker

      It was almost inevitable that my example would turn goofy. It’s the only way I can think to get out of it before it turns into a short story.

      She said your writing made her want to vomit? What a fantastic mentor she must be to aspiring writers! I guess, since she probably has dozens of best sellers out on the market, that it’s OK. I like to share what I know about writing, but I’m never going to be cocky about because:

      1. I’m good at some things but not others. For example, though I’ve been writing longer, you are better with imagery

      2. There’s always somebody better. I’ve visited the blogs of the people who frequently comment here, and they are all at least as good as me if not better, so who am I?

      My experience with your fiction, from a standpoint of development, is that you probably need to keep the story moving forward more quickly. You are good with setting a vivid stage and have a cool Lovecraftian vibe, so don’t lose that. And don’t listen to anyone who trashes you. They are trying to affirm their self-image by knocking others.

      Tony and I are in the beginning stages of mix-down. That is a pretty tedious process, because you spend hours trying to get the right mix, then you listen to it the next day and hate it. Carnegie Hall will have to wait a few months.

  • Bryan Edmondson

    Thanks for the positive words. They are like booster shots.
    Beginning stages of mix-down? That sounds like trying to get a break dancer into rehab.

  • nrhatch

    Your VAC added real VALUE to the CONTENT of this post. Love your Ninja . . . I did not see that throwing star coming before it nailed him to the wall.

    I’m all for showing, not telling, except when telling is TMI.

    * I would rather hear that a character threw up or got sick or vomited . . . without joining him in the bathroom.

    * Unless I’m in the mood for porn, I’d rather be told that the characters had sex . . . without the blow by blow account going on for 5 pages.

    In contrast, if characters sit down to eat . . . I want ALL the details. 😀

  • calaurore9

    Showing is an art, telling is a craft. Well done. I will look forward to more vignettes.

    • ericjbaker

      Thank you for reading and for the comment. Sometimes I feel silly posting these “how to” pieces, because I suspect most of the people reading me are pretty polished as writers. I think I reinforce my own learning by talking about it.

  • Matthew L. Campbell

    It’s easier said than done too. I’m a lot better than I used to be, but it’s one of those things that you can always improve upon.

    • ericjbaker

      Like playing an instrument, we writers have to put in the sweat and practice. Also, the writers I’ve “met” on WordPress are a talented bunch, so I don’t want to embarrass myself when I post. Gotta keep pushing myself to be better.

      Thanks so much for visiting and commenting!

  • D. Thomas Minton

    Great post, Eric. In my personal experience, fiction is a delicate balance between showing and telling, and that balance is the hardest thing to master (I’m still working on it). You can’t show everything, so show the most important stuff, and tell the stuff that’s not as important but which is still needed to move the story forward.

  • cup112278

    I have to let you know that you have given some GREAT advice! I have been writing for awhile, but have recently become public with my writing and need advice on improving the craft of it. So I greatly appreciate your advice!

  • Paula Tohline Calhoun

    Sheesh! EJB – hit me where it hurts, why don’t you?

    Yes, yes, yes, I know all about show vs. tell, and hear about it. read about it, or am lectured about it on a regular basis. I generally agree, but there are times when the beauty of language just overtakes me, and I enjoy the tell. As a matter of fact, while I laughed heartily at your show story, I rather enjoyed the intrigue of your tell. The “tell” introduced me to a different person altogether than the “show.” He is more introspective and mysterious than the show guy. The story also would go in a completely different direction, and probably not toward humor, as the second inevitably had to. What can I TELL you? i like both stories, and would continue to read both!

    Oh Good Lord! I think I just told you that you are a great writer, and cannot go wrong, whatever form your writing takes. Hmmm. . .the secret is out. I will, however, continue to delude myself into believing that one of those other blogs you read that is better than yours would of course be mine. Hard to deny the truth, isn’t it?

    I am a rather odd duck, I have discovered over the course of my blogging career, because, for me, being told that “the moon is shining” evokes an equally compelling image in my mind as reading that “the currency of the night’s silver orb scattered it coins on the floor beneath my window.” Take THAT, Anton Chekov! What else can I say? It seems that my own imagination fills in what could be shown. All you have to do (most times) is tell me. And, since I stubbornly refuse to consistently show, instead of tell, you are going to have to continue to tell me about showing you. Maybe some day I will cry “Uncle!” and just show you what I have to tell. BTW, you should hear me saying this stuff. It’s golden, I tell you, GOLDEN!

    Now, have I told you enough about me? I’m through with writing about me. What do you think about me?

    Show long – tell ya later!
    PTC

    P.S. I also want to tell you that seriously, this was a great post – all comments (or just mine) aside. Very well done, with great advice. I’m just sayin’. . .

    • ericjbaker

      Paula, you can “tell” any time you want, since you crack me up so much when doing so.

      Thanks for the compliments on my writing. You communicate with eloquence. Or, if you prefer: Words swim like intoxicated swans from the lake of your mind, down a waterfall of fingers splashing on keys, and onto the once-still pond of my comments section, sending ripples that dance their way onto the sandy shores of my understanding.

  • schillingklaus

    I deprecate “show don’t tell” rigorously, and so I write lots of prologues, expositions, info-dumps, and extradiegetic comments. No critique will ever be able to stop me.

    The tell version is usually clear and understandable, whereas shown passages are almost always worthless, incomprehensible blathering. My only deliberate usages for (prima facie) showing are rhetorical figures—such as hyperbola, metapher, allegory, zeugma, parallelism, pun—and steganography.

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