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Unpacking Show, Don't Tell



“Show, don’t tell” is a well-worn anecdote that any aspiring writer has probably heard dozens of times—from well-meaning English teachers, fellow writers, and workshops alike. The phrase’s origin is often attributed to Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who wrote in a letter to his brother that “you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that… a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star,” rather than outright stating that the moon is glowing. In fact, writers throughout history have posited their own version of this suggestion, some of which are summarized in this helpful blog post.


Loosely, “showing” means that a writer does not explicitly explain every character and situation to her reader; instead, the actual text and events of the story demonstrate its intangible aspects, like emotion, character traits, and atmosphere. Instead of force-feeding meaning to her reader, the writer builds a fuller, more vivid world which can show the reader that meaning on its own.


But repeating the phrase like a good-luck charm is one thing—what does it mean, concretely, to show instead of telling? To solve that problem, I’ve compiled here a list of five concrete methods to achieve showing, rather than telling, along with an example of each from a well-known literary work. Contrasted with those masterful bits of “showing” are my own attempts to “tell” the same situation, which demonstrate how showing is almost always more effective than outright telling.


Let’s start simple. One of the most straightforward methods of “showing” is through dialogue, which always speaks for itself apart from narrative text. Below is an example of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” that relies on dialogue:


“What’s the matter, Francis?” his wife asked him.

“Nothing,” Macomber said.

“Yes, there is,” she said. “What are you upset about?”

“Nothing,” he said.“


The excerpt uses just dialogue to convey the situation between Francis and his wife, trusting the reader will understand their dynamic. If the scene instead used telling, it might look something like this:


“What’s the matter, Francis?” his wife asked him

“Nothing,” Macomber said. He didn’t want to tell her what was bothering him.

“Yes, there is,” she insisted, knowing he was lying. “What are you upset about?”

“Nothing,” he said, hoping she would stop asking.


The second version of the scene over-explains, rather than letting the dialogue itself clue in the reader. Showing is often about trusting the reader’s comprehension and critical thinking skills, which can make for more successful writing. Another important method of showing is through the actions of characters. Consider this excerpt from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri:


“At breakneck speed Ashima knits sweater-vests for her father, her father-in-law, her brother, her three favorite uncles. They are all the same… The exception is her father's, done in a double-seed stitch with two thick cables and buttons down the front” (Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake)


Lahiri uses her character Ashima’s actions to show us something about Ashima: that she is meticulous and caring, most of all for her father. A more clunky version of this passage would try to explain Ashima’s emotions as she knits, rather than letting the action and details of the knitting show those emotions. For example:


“Missing her family members, Ashima decides to knit handmade gifts for all of them. She makes identical sweaters for her father-in-law, brother, and uncles. But for her father, whom she most of all longs to see, Ashima knits a specially-tailored cardigan.”


Telling the reader about Ashima’s emotions inserts unnecessary extra words; the reader can infer from her actions that she cares deeply for her family. Showing can often involve eliminating unnecessary explanations. However, showing can also elongate description, especially through providing character detail, which creates a more rounded, vivid image of characters in the reader’s mind, as in this passage from Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.


“Thetis stood at the edge of the clearing, her bone-white skin and black hair bright as slashes of lightning. The dress she wore clung close to her body and shimmered like fish-scale.”


A shorter version of the excerpt might read:


“Thetis stood at the edge of the clearing, with the confident, harsh aura of a god. Even in a simple, thin dress, she was terrifying.”


The simple description of the situation as “terrifying” lacks any of the specificity of Thetis’s expression and dress, leaving the reader with no visual image of the scene. Sensory detail is also key to creating a visual image for the reader to picture, which helps deepen her engagement with the story. Consider Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed:


“A caravan of Kuchi nomads passed them by, a dusty procession of jingling bells and groaning camels, and a woman with kohl-rimmed eyes and hair the color of wheat smiled at Abdullah.”


A specific description of sounds and sights gives a depth to the scene that lingers in the reader’s imagination. A similar passage that simply tells the reader what she is meant to take away from the situation is weaker and less interesting:


“A caravan of Kuchi nomads passed them by, accompanied by a host of new sounds and sights. One of the woman turned to smile at Abdullah.”


There are many other ways to show the reader the world and events of the story, but these core four trusty examples can add depth and engagement to almost any story. Ultimately, though, “showing” is about trusting the reader and letting the story speak for itself. That is how to make the broken piece of glass glitter, as Chekhov suggested. That is how to show, not tell.

 

About the Author: Laura Romig is a student at Brown University who loves the study of language. When she’s not reading or writing speculative fiction and magical realism, you can find her running, biking, or posting to her Instagram food blog.


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