Tell, don’t show Reply

One simple rule can sort even a serious ‘show, don’t tell’ obsession: so long as you’re dealing with objective facts, tell us those facts as simply and clearly as possible. You only need to make an effort to show rather than tell when you’re conveying subjective ideas.


Video transcript follows below:

In our last video, we discussed the famous advice that writers should show rather than tell. But for some that well-meaning advice becomes an obsession. There are writers who refuse to acknowledge any form of the verb ‘to be’ and wake in the night screaming about ‘thinking words,’ whatever they are. In extreme cases, writers have been known to endlessly shout ‘Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.’ Even though nobody has any idea what that quote actually means.

When left untreated, a show don’t tell obsession leads writers to write exclusively in dramatised scenes and ultimately to become bafflingly obscure and tedious. Who really wants to read:

The automatic doors swished open and Jane’s shoes squeaked on the methyl methacrylate cryl-a-flex flooring. Below the artificial light of the Maxos LED luminaries, the air chilled and fans whirred. She touched the cold plastic and pulled it from the giant chiller. As she turned towards the checkouts, a man said ‘Do we need orange juice?’ but the woman at his side pushed her trolley forward in silence.

When all we need to know is that Jane bought some milk in Tescos.

One simple rule can cure ‘show, don’t tell’ obsession. You don’t need to worry about telling anything that’s an objective fact. For instance, it is a fact that Jane bought some milk. It’s a fact that Tony was often late for work. It’s a fact that I’m 28.

The problem only arises when you tell your readers things that are subjective. You may remember me discussing the problems with using the adjective beautiful to describe a view. It’s not a fact that any particular view is beautiful – it’s a matter of opinion. So in that case you probably need to show us the facts of the view and hope we share your opinion that those facts are beautiful.

At other times it’s fine to tell the reader something that isn’t an objective fact. Although people’s feelings cannot be objectively verified, it’s sometimes better to state them directly than to try to show them through action. I’d prefer to read that Bob was nervous than to read to read some trite description of him shuffling in his chair and biting his finger nails.

Even character judgements can occasionally be stated explicitly. I like it when Joyce Carol Oates sometimes describes a character directly: ‘He was reserved by nature, but genial and even gregarious when taken unaware.’ (‘Where is here’) But a sentence such as that one should probably give you pause for thought. The question of a man’s geniality is a matter of opinion, not fact, and normally we would prefer to hear the facts of the man’s behaviour and judge for ourselves whether they constitute geniality.

But the main thing to remember from this video is that so long as you’re dealing in objective facts, you should state them as explicitly and clearly as you can. ‘On her 31st birthday, minutes after buying a carton of milk, Jane was punched on the neck by a mugger’ is a better way to start a story than to try to show these things through a multitude of specific sensory details. I’d only object to the sentence if you wrote that she was punched on the neck by an evil mugger – evilness, of course, is a matter of opinion.

Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.

(The thumbnail image uses a photograph by Hao-po Chang. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/changpp/)

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