“Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and you’ll involve me.”
Sol Stein, On Writing
In his book, On Writing, Sol Stein provides a very helpful guide on something writers so often hear about: showing the story instead of telling it.
Do you remember asking someone, a family member perhaps, to tell you a story? It’s almost as if we’ve been conditioned to tell rather than show.
We’ve moved into a visual age with the likes of TV, film, and Youtube dominating our lives. People want to see a story, they want to experience it, to escape from their own world and go on adventures their own lives do not allow. And this is why, as a writer in our contemporary age, showing a story instead of telling it is becoming more important than ever. Stein, a master editor of some of the most widely-read books in the world, states that a failure to show the story is one of the chief reasons for rejecting manuscripts.
Stein highlights three main areas in which writers become ensnared by telling:
- Backstory – telling the reader what’s happened before the story begins. Stein is of the view that such information should be shown either in a narrative summary or in a rather controversial flashback.
- Telling what a character looks like. This is a tricky one. Instead of just saying, for example, a character is tall, look to show it. “He had to stoop under every doorway”, for instance.
- Telling what a character sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes, and feels emotionally. We’ll go into more detail with this below.
So how do you show a story?
Let’s start with an easy pointer. A character should never tell another character something they already know. It’s intrusive and lazy. Here’s one of Stein’s examples:
“Henry, your son the doctor is at the door.”
This sentence is just … urgh. Forced to fuck. Conveys no image whatsoever. See what you think of this version:
“Do you think Herny would look more like a doctor if he grew a beard?”
Now, this is better. We have an image of a beardless man and the detail of him being a doctor has been shown to us rather than just told.
Another thing to try and include when showing is characterisation. The best writers reveal what their characters are about without actually telling you anything about them. Let’s look at one of Stein’s examples of a woman who loves her children dearly:
“Helen was a wonderful woman, always concerned about her children.”
Very ‘tell-y’. It’s a bland description, devoid of imagery. See what you think of this version:
“When Helen drove her children to school she insisted on parking up and with one in each hand, accompanied them to the door.”
Here we’re shown a clear image of how much Helen loves her children. This one sentence reveals how much she cares without any mention of it. We can picture her walking them right up to the door, kissing them goodbye. But it leaves the reader scope to ask questions which in turn draws them deeper into the tale. Is Helen too loving? Will she ever let her children grow up? We’ve been given the tools to ascertain, to judge, what she’s about. If you can work characterisation into your descriptions you’re doing it right!
You’ll no doubt notice that when showing instead of telling sentences tend to be longer, and that’s fine! Let’s have a gander at this example:
“Neil felt anxious.”
Dull as shite. How about this?
“Every sound Neil heard, even the slightest scuff, caused him to spin round in the direction from which he thought it had come.”
Saying someone is anxious is easy. Showing it is a skill. And in showing actions we reveal how characters feel. This helps with characterisation too, because we get a sense of what this character does and how this character reacts when they experience such emotions.
Stein provides another excellent example, which he takes from Pulitzer prize-winner, John Updike. Instead of merely saying his character, Polly, loves swimming, Updike, with eloquence, says:
“With clumsy jubilance, Polly hurtled her body from the rattling board and surfaced grinning through the kelp of her own hair.”
Here we see that Polly is grinning as she surfaced, and coupled with the clumsy jubilance we get the impression that Polly is loving what she’s doing. I love that metaphor at the end: ‘the kelp of her own hair.’
Think about yourself
A good way to overcome telling is to highlight an emotion a character is feeling and then think of what you yourself do when you feel the same way. We often do things without thinking about them. Nervousness is a good example of this. When I feel nervous I tend to bite my nails or fidget. My palms can become quite clammy too. Instead of just saying a character is nervous, show these physical reactions! Don’t worry about not using the word ‘nervous’. You’ve shown that emotion. Trust your reader to draw their own conclusions.
One key ingredient to helping you show instead of telling is specificity. If you’re precise in your descriptions it gives you the power to show what you’re seeking to describe rather than merely telling the reader about it. Looking at John Updike’s piece about Polly above, the reference to the ‘kelp of her own hair’ is a great example of specificity.
Metaphors and similes
Using metaphors and similes is a great way to aid your showing efforts. A good simile or metaphor can say a lot with very little. Our sight is one of, if not the main way we learn. I find particularly with the fantasy genre if you’re trying to describe something original it helps to make references to relatable things, though this can be quite tricky when you’re making up a whole new fucking world!
George Orwell encouraged the use of metaphors and similes and provided some helpful and snappy advice when it comes to thinking of them:
“Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
What Orwell’s essentially saying is, don’t use clichés. Try to be original.
A show v. tell checklist
Stein provides a helpful little checklist of questions you can ask yourself to see if what you’re writing is showing instead of telling:
Are you allowing the reader to see what’s going on?
Does your author’s voice stray into the narrative at any point? If so, can you silence that voice with action? It’s through telling that the author’s voice intrudes.
Are you naming emotions instead of conveying them by actions?
Is any character telling another what they already know?
Always check to see if your descriptions are visual. Does your prose evoke imagery?
This sounds like I should never, ever tell …
Telling does have its place. It’s particularly useful when you’re trying to move the story forward. Given the advice of the experts, I ‘d say such instances should be kept brief and minimal. Do it often and your readers will most likely lose interest in your story.
Well there we have it, a whistle-stop tour of show v tell. I hope it’s been of some use. If you can get into the knack of showing your story you’ll be rewarded with a richer, more enjoyable story!
Good luck, and happy Christmas!