‘Show, don’t tell’ is perhaps better known than any other piece of writing advice. On Creative Writing courses it sometimes becomes a mantra repeated ritualistically. But what exactly does it mean?
‘Show, don’t tell’ writing exercise
Rewrite the following description in the objective viewpoint. You may only describe externally observable signs: what the characters say and do; what the room looks like. You can’t say what the characters are feeling or thinking and you can’t analyse how they behave. Try to convey everything that’s explained in the original description.
As soon as Chloe arrived at the party, she realised it wasn’t the sort of occasion she had anticipated. In every way her preparations seemed inappropriate for this unexpectedly formal event. She began to feel distinctly uncomfortable and wished she could be somewhere else. During those first minutes, without anybody being explicitly rude, she sensed an air of disapproval, a sort of collective don’t look now but, an implicit, we’ll talk about this later. She tried to fit in but was so nervous that she committed a catalogue of real and imagined faux pas. But when the dishevelled man introduced himself, there was something about his nonchalance, his ironic distance from their surroundings, which meant that Chloe knew she had met a kindred spirit. She felt almost giggly with relief, and started to relax.
Video transcript follows below:
I know our viewers never tire of hearing what I got for Christmas. I’ve spoken to you in the past about my electric razor present, but I haven’t mentioned this jumper. Between you and me, I don’t really like it.
What do you do if you open a present and it’s really crap? Suppose your friend gets you something for your birthday. [opens present] It’s great, you say. Thanks, that’s just what I wanted. No, you say, really I am very happy with this gift. Your friend starts to cry. Your friend is saying ‘you hate it; you hate it!’ ‘No. It makes me incredibly happy. It’s like the best ever present, thank you. I am incredibly happy to receive this gift; I almost have no words for this happiness.’ It’s no good – your friend is distraught.
But, if you open the present like ‘Wow! Oh, no way! That is so sick! I have to try this on; let me try this on! Oh my God this is so… I can’t believe it!’ In other words, if you want to convince someone you’re happy, don’t tell them you’re happy; show them you’re happy.
Same in writing. Don’t write: Jim unwrapped the present with great excitement and upon removing the gift he felt his heart lift and his spirits soar; he was very happy with the gift. He was as excited as could be. You have to write: ‘Jim ripped open the present, dropping clumps of Sellotape and silver paper. He pulled out the jumper and held it under his chin, measuring the fit, stroking the wool. ‘Oh my God!’ he said, ‘This is so cool! Where did you find this?’ He clapped his hands and bounced on the spot. ‘I have to try this on.’
This is the basis of maybe the most famous piece of writing advice: show don’t tell. As David Lambuth put it:
Never use an abstract term if a concrete one will serve. Appeal directly to your reader’s emotions rather than indirectly through the intermediary of the intellectualizing process. Tell him that the man gave a dollar to the tramp rather than that he indulged in an act of generosity.
If you want to practice ‘Show, don’t tell’ then a great way is to write in the third person objective point of view. The third person objective is when you adopt the point of view of a fly on the wall – you can only describe external sensory details. You can say what the characters do, what they say, what the setting looks like, what noises can be heard, and even what the air temperature is like. But you can’t tell us what the characters think or feel. Have a go rewriting the paragraph below in the third person objective, and please share your revised versions in the comments section.
One more thing, although many writers are guilty of telling when they should be showing, just as many are guilty of showing what they should be telling. So please don’t miss the next video in our series, which is going to be called ‘Tell, Don’t Show.’
Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.
(The thumbnail picture uses an image developed by FutUndBeidl that is covered by a Creative Commons license: https://www.flickr.com/photos/61423903@N06/)