One of the hardest writing concepts to explain in an actionable way is ‘show don’t tell’. Sure, it sounds simple enough – don’t just communicate the detail, demonstrate it – but the true meaning and application can still seem vague.
So what does it mean? A simple example would be, don’t just write that ‘Brad felt terrible’, outline something which gives context to Brad’s response, without having to be so blunt.
‘Brad dropped his head and stared at the ground. He stayed staring for a long time, his body wilted, slumped over his bones. Unwilling to move.’
By providing the context, you give your audience a way in, allowing them to interpret the scene for themselves, to actually be part of it in their own mind. Yes, Brad felt bad, and I can tell that by reading his actual response, because I’ve dealt with human beings before. The additional detail helps to build emotional connection, and adds more weight to your words. It’s not just action and reaction we need as readers, its a feeling. Your aim is re-create the emotion of the moment within the mind of your reader – you can’t, in my opinion, do that by simply hitting them with blunt description.
But not everyone agrees with this.
I’ve seen more than one writer reject this concept outright – ‘we’re storytellers, not story ‘showers”, one writer I read explained. That is a ridiculously dismissive and ignorant approach. Sure, there are genres where simplification can absolutely work, it’s not to say its always necessary, I guess. But depending on what you’re trying to write, the concept of ‘show don’t tell’ will be hugely important – even in genres where it might be less relevant, being aware of, and applying the show don’t tell concept will still help make you a better writer.
Here’s another interpretation which might help – Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the excellent ‘Fight Club’, and a whole lot of other stuff since, has some really great, valuable insights into writing which are worth checking out.
In a post on Lit Reactor, published back in 2013, Palahniuk provided a simplified, streamlined process to help writers shift into ‘show don’t tell’ mode.
“In six seconds, you’ll hate me, but in six months, you’ll be a better writer.
From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.
The list should also include: Loves and Hates.
And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later. Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:
“Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”
Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:
“The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”
Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.
Instead of saying:
“Adam knew Gwen liked him.”
You’ll have to say:
“Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”
It’s pretty hard to argue against the logic here, and the results provided. Sure, you can simplify things down, but by forcing yourself to add more context, you expand your capacity to understand the scene, which also gives the audience more ways to connect with the concepts you’re writing about.
Palahniuk, as noted, has shared several gems like this (and is reportedly working on his own book about writing technique). You might not like his work, and I personally feel that some of his later works have focused on controversy over content, but there is a reason for that. He does have a logic as to what and why he writes, as he explained in a recent podcast with Joe Rogan.
And regardless of his output, his actual writing is still very crisp, and highly readable. Here’s another tip from Chuck P along similar lines:
“Nothing [should be] fed to the reader as fat or happy. You can only describe actions and appearances in a way that makes a judgment occur in the reader’s mind. Whatever it is, you unpack it into the details that will re-assemble themselves within the reader.
Amy Hempel does this. Instead of telling us the boyfriend in The Harvest is an asshole, we see him holding a sweater soaked with his girlfriend’s blood and telling her, “You’ll be okay, but this sweater is ruined.”
This, again, underlines the ‘show don’t tell’ approach – don’t just say what happened, feel through it, examine the detail, and allow your audience to do the same.
There will always be different interpretations on this, and it’ll remain a difficult concept to grasp – and an even harder one to continually practice. But next time you’re going over your work and you find a ‘thought verb’, or you notice that you’ve described an action directly, try re-thinking it. Try re-imagining the scene and describing what you see, not what you want your audience to think or feel.
They’ll get it, readers are clever. You’re not simply providing directions to your conclusion.