Every new writer has been told, at least once, that she should show, not tell about her story’s characters and settings—told at least once in every class, every workshop, every seminar, and every critique group or club meeting. If one were so bold as to ask these advisors what they mean, quick examples of “shows” and “tells” would follow. Yet, a clear method of differentiating between the two is most often relegated to the realm of mysticism. Practice the art long enough, Obi Wan, and you will know them when you see them.
Such leaves us confused and frustrated.
Despair not, for one guru gave me a rational definition of a “Show,” which I offer here:
Image a little being on the shoulder of your POV character. Whatever this little being can see, hear, feel, or receive through any of its senses is a “show.’ All else are tells. And unfortunately any sentence that is contaminated with so much as a whiff of tellness, is damned to Tell.
Thusly enlightened, let’s apply this knowledge to an example from the first chapter of my recent release, The Robot’s Daughter. On the first page, I introduce Yanitur, captain of the Nirvania cruiser, Quantum. I begin the third paragraph with (1) : “He thought of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars: blues, reds, yellows, and whites strung like lights overhead, declaring a perpetual raucous party.”
Our criterion, declares this sentence to be a “tell.” The little being on Yanitur’s shoulder cannot see thoughts, therefore this cannot be a “show.”
So let’s fix that. We can turn this tell into a show easily, and so can you in your writing. (2) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars: blues, reds, yellows, and whites strung like lights overhead, declaring a perpetual raucous party.”
The little being on Yanitur’s shoulder can see the holographic scene, so this is now a “show,” right? It has improved the story a lot, right?
Maybe, and maybe, or maybe not.
There could be a debate as to whether “stung like lights overhead, declaring a perpetual raucous party,” is an interpretation that can’t really be seen. Thus that phrase might damn this sentence to Tell.
To the inquisitions! Let’s purify the sentence further (3) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars: blues, reds, yellows, and whites.” I like it. It’s kind of snappy, and it’s shorter. Shorter is better for the modern underdeveloped mind, right?
Well, hell, let’s make it shorter still (4) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky, its night thick with stars.” It’s still good because it’s a show, and therefore sanctified.
Just for argument’s sake, let’s go one shorter (5) : “On the holographic screen floated an image of the Nirvanian home sky.” It’s a show because the little being on Yanitur’s shoulder can see it, but we have no idea what he is seeing because all of the detail has been washed away through fanatical cleansing. In fact, sentence (5) feels terribly like a tell. It might be a perfect show, but it no longer communicates the captain’s nostalgia and sense of abandonment, which I attempted to infuse into the original sentence. Dare I say that it no longer conveys much of interest to the reader?
My point is, one can write some pretty rotten shows that do little to pique the reader’s interest, or one can write robust tells that paint vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.
Does the mantra, “Show, don’t tell,” help us to write more interesting stories?
In my opinion, it can be helpful, but it is not sufficient to guarantee successful writing. Perhaps we should rely more on the words of Gertrude Stein, “When should a sentence not be interesting?”
Next time: An alternative to the Show, Don’t Tell Paradigm.