Show, Don’t Tell

moonlight“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s elegant phrasing is a good way to begin to understand the writer’s adage of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. Several writer friends agreed to spend some time pondering this with me, and to all post on this topic on the same day. At the end of my post are links to their musings. We’re all writing and reading in different genres, so I’m excited to read the examples they’ve used.

First of all, what does ‘showing’ mean? I see it as a way to describe what’s happening through the emotions and senses of the characters, their dialogue and the action.

So, what’s the problem with telling?

Nothing. Telling can’t be banished in writing, nor should it; it should just be used in the right places for the right purposes. Too much telling doesn’t work well in beginnings, when the reader needs to be drawn in to the story. A laundry list of descriptions and events doesn’t evoke a connection between the characters and the reader, even if it’s a beautifully written laundry list.

Too often, writers try to introduce their characters by their physical description, even down to what the characters wear. Unless the story revolves around the fashion industry, I need to know, as a reader, more about the character’s personality before I can begin to care that they have auburn hair, blue eyes, and wear designer clothes.

Overdoing the physical description is an especially easy trap to fall into when writing fantasy characters. Yes, it’s important the readers know they’re not learning about the old lady next door, but there are so many other ways to show a fantasy world full of fascinating characters. Eoin Colfer in Artemis Fowl, The Lost Colony, introduces a character this way:

“Holly Short’s career as an elfin private investigator was not working out as well as she’d hoped. This was mainly because the Lower Elements’ most popular events show had run not one, but two specials on her over the past months. It was difficult to go undercover when her face was forever popping up on cable reruns.”

In a mere fifty-six words we learn Holly is an elf, a private investigator, and is having trouble with her job. We also learn of some sort of world called the Lower Elements, and we can figure out that the setting is in a modern time period, because of the mention of cable shows. Even though we don’t yet know what Holly looks like and we don’t know anything about this other world so far, I, at least, don’t want to stop reading.

Even for characters who not the good guys, readers need to feel some sort of interest in them, because it’s hard to worry about what a cardboard cutout might do. Bartimaeus, a 5,000-year-old djinn, in Jonathon Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand, is not your typical character a reader could love, but he’s important to the story. Here’s how we learn a bit about him when he is debating what kind of creature he needs to become to carry out a robbery:

“I hate the taste of mud. It is no fit thing for a being of air and fire. The cloying weight of earth oppresses me greatly whenever I come into contact with it. That is shy I am choosy about my incarnations. Birds, good. Insects, good. Bats, okay. Things that run fast are fine. Tree dwellers are even better. Subterranean things, not good. Moles, bad.”

Dialogue and action are crucial as well. I feel a bit strange posting some of my own work, because I’m still having a hard time believing real people will actually read it, but I decided I needed to take the plunge for the this post.

Here’s an example of how I could have just told a brief action scene from Escape from Camp David:

“Luke knew the helicopter was going to crash, and he was scared. He yelled to Callie and Theo to run, grabbing Callie and dragging her away. When the helicopter crashed, it made a booming sound. The heat from the fire was hot.”

Here’s how I actually wrote it:

“Get out of the way!” Luke screamed. He flung himself at Callie and Theo, both standing transfixed at the sight of the helicopters tangled together. “Run! Run! They’re going to crash.” He grabbed Callie’s arm and dragged her away, not wanting to look back. A boom sounded behind him, nearly knocking him down, and he felt a surge of heat washing over him.”

There are so many other examples I could find , but this post would grow way too long, so I’ll stop with the thought that if a writer draws you into a story and keeps you there, they’ve mastered the art of showing the glint of light on broken glass.

I’d love to see more examples of ‘show, don’t tell’, so please comment if you have any to share. If you want to explore this question more, check out these writers (Their posts should all be up by noon on Tuesday):

Tracey Martin
Gretchen McNeil
K.A. Stewart
Wendy Cebula
Amy Bai
Bryn Greenwood

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13 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell

  1. wendycinNYC says:

    Great post, Dee! Your example is perfect.

  2. Amy Bai says:

    Love the example, Dee! And a wonderful point about intorducing characters, too. 🙂

  3. Jacquie Gum says:

    Excellent commentary Dee and exhibitive of the teach by example! Hope you are doing well. Think of you so often. Will be in town in November – hope we can share some time.

  4. Tracey says:

    Great examples! I hadn’t thought about how it works with character introductions before.

  5. Gretchen says:

    Your post is so eloquent! I’m jealous. Beautifully, done, Dee!

  6. houndrat says:

    Great post, Dee, and great idea! It helps to view other writers’ opinions on writing techniques, and see examples in action.

    I love your opening quote, btw! 🙂

  7. sue says:

    I think the quote from Chekov says it all.

    The examples were great, almost zero tension in the first one and the paragraphs you used in the book, paint a much tenser situation.

  8. Timothy says:

    I love Artemis Fowl, Dee! And, wow. I can hardly wait to read EFCD.

  9. Bryn says:

    Yes, the physical description is one of those tricky places, where people think they’re showing, because they’re offering concrete physical details, but they’re really telling, because those details rarely help us truly connect with a character.

    And I love the djinn’s assessment of his place in the world. “The taste of mud” indeed.

  10. Jeanne says:

    This is great! We just went over this in my Monday night fiction class. For writers, I think it’s one of those topics you just can’t hear enough times.

    Will make my way over to meet your other writer friends….

  11. Nancy says:

    Great post and so true! I loved to get a glimpse of your work.


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