Show and (Don’t) Tell

I don’t pretend to be a huge authority on writing; I’m more of an observer.  I am not formally trained as a writer, and I only recently published my first full-length novel at age 54.  However, I do enjoy writing. I have two books under my belt, and I’m working on a third. I have also read a bajillion books and appreciate the art of finely crafted prose and a cracking good yarn.  In my limited experience I have learned or observed that successful writing is about showing rather than telling.

Anton Chekhov: "show me the light glinting on broken glass"

I recently came across two quotes that support what I mean.  The first is by Anton Chekhov who said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the light glinting on broken glass,” which seems to sum it up very nicely. E.L. Doctorow made a similar remark with, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”

Dialogue when used effectively can make a story sing but plodding, stilted conversation, which relies on the heavy use of adverbs (words with the characteristic “ly” ending) to explain someone’s feelings can sound more like a dirge than sweet music to ones ears.  As in descriptive passages, conversation should allow us to experience one’s emotion or intent through effective telling. An example of a weak use of dialogue might be something like:

“I hate you,” he said angrily.

The fact that the speaker used the word “hate” should have been enough of a clue that he was angry.   The use of the adverb is redundant and amateurish. In real life we don’t (usually) have to spell out how we’re feeling. The choice of words, the tone of voice, a shout or whisper, our body language are markers that we pick up on as we blithely go through life. The right choice of words and actions will more effectively convey a character’s feelings:

Without raising her voice she said, “You make my stomach turn,” and slid past him leaving him to rub away the sting of her slap.

There is no question that the woman in the example above is upset.  Her words and his slapped face are all the clues we need to know that she was not very happy with him.  In my novel, Oh What a Lucky Man, there is a scene in which Nancy tries to describe to her former husband, Ray, what her depression was like after three miscarriages:

“I was in a deep dark place where the light of day rarely reached.  I was lost, cold, lonely, and broken.  I didn’t care about you, Ray, because I didn’t even care about myself.  And you couldn’t stand that could you?  You couldn’t bear the thought of me giving up on you.  But you never extended a hand.  You never tried to dig me out of my hole.  Instead you called a lawyer and set yourself to the task of dissolving our marriage.”  Nancy was talking in almost a whisper now.  She was suddenly exhausted and sighed as salty lines dried on her face.  She closed her eyes and slowly, gently rested her forehead on the backs of her hands, which gripped the steering wheel at the 12 o’clock position.

 Nancy heard Ray open the passenger door without a word, get out of the car, and quietly close the door behind him.  She could hear his footsteps crunch in the gravel along the shoulder of the road and then felt the car jostled as he climbed onto the hood of her car and leaned back against the windshield.  She lifted her head and the image of her former husband shattered into a thousand different planes as a new flood of tears came rushing up. 

I hope the depth of emotion of both characters in my excerpt is apparent even though Ray doesn’t say a word in this passage.  I didn’t tell you that Nancy was upset or that Ray was shaken by her monologue, but I hope that I showed you.  But don’t listen to me, listen to Checkov and “…show me the light glinting on the broken glass.”


14 comments on “Show and (Don’t) Tell

  1. Nice passage you pasted there for this post, Andy.

    I love that Quote from Anton Chekhov. Show, Don’t Tell is one of the hardest concepts to teach and have the readers/students completely understand. That quote is a fantastic example of what writers should do. And you also break down the process well too.

    I’ve written about Show, Don’t Tell on my blog and I love reading what other fantastic bloggers like you have to say.

  2. I’m not sure Chekov would have approved “I have also read about a bajillion books…”, let’s try that one again shall we?

    • Fair enough. Does “umpteen” work? No? How about, “I have also gazed upon a galaxy of words collected between countless covers?”

      • Now you’re talkin’, although with the proliferation of e-readers you may have to change that one soon too. No covers.
        Just how many zeros are in “umpteen bajillion”? I’d bet Congress would know.
        I’m going to give it a try. (With apologies to Woody Allen)
        “Books, lots of books…fields of books…a tremendous amount of books…”.

  3. “Show don’t tell” is an art. Love the quotes. thanks!
    p.s. I am particular to the word “gazillion” as in “I had sold a gazillion postcard stamps, and I just couldn’t sell one more.” That was the defining moment I knew it was time to leave the U S Postal Service after 16 years.

  4. “Let the world sing to us – don’t try to force your tune upon it.” Lovely read, and what should be a must read for the greater writing community at large. I won’t say one should never tell – after all, expediency in some cases is a boon – but generally speaking, one should let the scene and the characters both breathe. It’s more effective, to be certain, drawing us in deeper into the tale…

  5. Andy, this is great stuff. I love reading accomplished authors, such as yourself (and yes, you are an accomplished author), write about the specifics of storytelling/writing.

    You better bet I’ll be reading.

  6. Jeniffer–

    The craft of storytelling is a complicated one, but you and Andrew have given me some good fodder for future blogs. I better get cracking!

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