“Show, don’t tell.” What does it mean, and should writers pay attention to this time-worn advice? In this post I’m going to look at three writers who use narrative exposition–old-fashioned storytelling–and see what they’re doing on the “show, don’t tell” front. Let’s start with a bit of background.
Wikipedia cites a passage in a Chekhov letter as the source for “show, don’t tell.”
“In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” 
Thus, at its most basic, “show, don’t tell” means the reader immediately sees a picture. Compare these examples:
- Her sister was a very good artist.
- Peggy stood back, and Angela unlocked her sister’s studio. Unframed canvases stood ten deep against the walls. Reds, pinks, yellows, like cupped hands floating on greenish water. Lilies pads, were they? “Why, Peggy, your work could hang next to Monet’s!”
“B” isn’t great–this is a blog post, after all–but, it’s certainly more vivid than “A.”
“Show, Don’t Tell” means the reader can get a quick flash of information about the people and objects in a scene. Often the flash of info includes figurative language–similes and metaphors. Occasionally, the writer includes a scrap of dialogue.
“Show, Don’t Tell” and Scenes
More broadly, however, “show, don’t tell” means telling the story through dramatic action. As I wrote in a previous post, dramatic scenes are where you slow the story down and let the clock tick in real time. They’re like scenes in a play.
In a scene, you’re dramatizing action. You’re “showing” what’s going on. But, “telling” is a time-honored storytelling method, too. Perhaps we’re genetically programmed to sit around the fire and listen to the storyteller in our midst.
A “told” story has great power. Readers willingly surrender to a confident voice, and if we feel we’re in good hands, we relax and listen. If the storyteller doesn’t make things happen and doesn’t fill our heads with compelling images, we nod off and fall asleep.
How can you be the good storyteller, not the boring one? By satisfying the reader’s desire to “see” what’s going on. Even when you’re “telling,” you are also obliged to “show.”
Let’s look at some instances when you might want to “tell, not show” or “tell and show.”
Shifting Out of Scene-Writing Mode
Writers often shift out of scene-writing mode when they want to do the following:
- provide context for scenes that will be fully dramatized;
- help the reader to visualize the setting;
- show the psychological makeup of the character;
- provide background;
- establish the “story voice”;
- give the reader a rest after an intense, dramatic scene;
- offer a way to show events that are important, but which, if dramatized, would have no conflict;
- and, show the consequences (why the story matters to the narrator).
No matter what your rationale for summarizing action rather than showing it in scene, above all, summary passages must place visual details in front of the reader. That way the reader can see what the author sees.
The Reader’s Hungry Mind
Have you ever attended a party where waiters circulate with trays of canapes? That’s what authors must do. Keep offering readers delightful, visual treats. The mind’s-eye is hungry. You want your book to be a “satisfying” read.
One more thought, and then I’ll get to the excerpts below. Unless you have been writing for a long time, your first draft may not have many memorable details. Don’t sweat it. When you revise, you can imagine more deeply and provide them.
Exposition Provides Context
This excerpt from “The Lady With the Little Dog,” a famous Chekhov story, lays the groundwork for scenes that will come later. Because we know the main character’s mindset, we’re prepared for what happens in a later seduction scene.
Note how Chekhov’s eye picks out what’s unusual–the white, Pomeranian dog, for instance. It’s not just a dog, but a specific kind and color of dog. The author doesn’t overload us with details, but he gives us “Verney’s pavilion,” “fair-haired,” “beret”. What’s more important to Chekhov is that we understand Gurov’s psychology. The author “shows” us Gurov’s character, priming us for what to expect. Thus, like a pawn advancing across a chessboard, this passage of exposition moves the story forward.
In your own work have you ever tried “laying it all out” the way Chekhov does here?
It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog. Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, who had by then been a fortnight at Yalta, and so was fairly at home there, had begun to take an interest in new arrivals. Sitting in Verney’s pavilion, he saw, walking on the sea-front, a fair-haired young lady of medium height, wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her. And afterwards he met her in the public gardens and in the square several times a day. She was walking alone, always wearing the same beret, and always with the same white dog; no one knew who she was, and every one called her simply “the lady with the dog.”
“If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance,” Gurov reflected. He was under forty, but he had a daughter already twelve years old, and two sons at school. He had been married young, when he was a student in his second year, and by now his wife seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified, and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri, and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home.
He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago–had been unfaithful to her often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, used to call them “the lower race.” It seemed to him that he had been so schooled by bitter experience that he might call them what he liked, and yet he could not get on for two days together without “the lower race.” In the society of men he was bored and not himself, with them he was cold and uncommunicative; but when he was in the company of women he felt free, and knew what to say to them and how to behave; and he was at ease with them even when he was silent. In his appearance, in his character, in his whole nature, there was something attractive and elusive which allured women and disposed them in his favour; he knew that, and some force seemed to draw him, too, to them.
Anton Chekhov. The Lady With The Dog And Other Stories (Kindle Locations 5-19). Kindle Edition
“Telling” Is Great for Giving Readers an Overview of the Setting
Telling is a great strategy for orienting readers to a setting. The author of this excerpt, Marion Molteno, uses second person–the “you” voice. Second person isn’t commonly found in fiction (the exception being Lorrie Moore’s incredible Who Will Run the Frog Hospital). However, second person is used in cooking, travel, and how-to books. As readers we respond to instructions.
In Molteno’s Uncertain Light, one of my very favorite reads of 2016, the “you” voice drags us forcibly into unfamiliar terrain. She keeps offering memorable details, such as “amphitheatre of gaunt hills” and “humpy earth.” As readers, we have the sensation of gliding over the roof of the world. That’s because she’s moving us–dragging us–into seeing what she wants us to see.
You travel first through a flat valley, barren except for a trail of green that follows the bed of a river. The view is long, the spaces wide and empty; all you will see of human habitation is an occasional yurt, the squat round tent of a herder family, where sheep with long floppy ears and fat tails huddle together in the early morning mist. Ahead the mountains loom, rising abruptly from the valley floor. Nearer, and the road begins to rise into an amphitheatre of gaunt hills, with tracks disappearing into small stands of forest. Up further, and the earth closes in as the road winds up the side of a steep valley, with a dramatic drop to the river below. It is from here that the road becomes treacherous – you would never venture up it without a driver who knew it well. The tarmac has fallen apart, it hasn’t been repaired since before the end of the Soviet era, and the earth beneath crumbles. Each time you come round a steep bend you expect calamity. But when you can forget about the road you are caught by awe at the shape of the land. Look down, and it is all boulders and humpy earth, the remains of some long-ago landslide. Look up, and the road winds constantly upwards. Hard to imagine that new valleys will open up high above, or that this mountain is a mere foothill to the massive barriers beyond: the Pamirs, that are called the Roof of the World. You are touching ages past up here, for the road follows an ancient track that for centuries was a route over those mountains into China. But that fell into disuse, longer ago than anyone can remember, and the Silk Road traders found less hazardous routes across. In recent times it has had another function, for not far from here is a scarcely marked border with Tajikistan, a country so remote, so unconnected to the outside world that few elsewhere have registered its existence let alone know that its people have endured a traumatic civil war. For those fleeing from the fighting this was one possible route out; difficult enough in a vehicle, arduous beyond imagination for those who had to do it on foot.
Molteno, Marion. Uncertain Light (Kindle Locations 101-116). Advance Editions. Kindle Edition.
Bravely and beautifully written, Uncertain Light is an example of the many fine books coming from independent presses. Molteno’s most recent book, If You Can Walk You Can Dance, a Commonwealth Writers Prize Winner, was published in April, 2017 by Niyogi Books, a New Delhi publisher. The book’s not yet on Amazon, but your local bookstore can order it by using ISBN 9 780951 975213. (Price £9.99, distributed in the UK & internationally by Central Books.)
No Sparks Between Characters? Tell, and Show
When else might a writer wish to tell rather than show? When there’s no inherent conflict. That doesn’t mean no tension.
It took me years to grasp the difference between a tense situation (in real life) and tension between characters. I hope I can explain this adequately.
This excerpt, by Paulette Alden, a Stanford grad school classmate of Paul Turow’s, tells, rather than dramatizes, the narrator sitting in a hospital corridor. We all know what that’s like. Waiting in a hospital is both mindnumbingly boring and inherently tense.
Alden’s story, “The Student,” is the first story in Unforgettable, short stories about a woman moving from one phase of life to another. The story collection is self-published, and on her website, she’s got a great blog post called “the reluctant self-publisher.” However, back to the story.
Here’s Why I Chose This Example
Miriam’s student Brian has attempted suicide. In a few strokes Alden shows us who’s waiting, mainly by letting us see them through the filter of Miriam’s consciousness. I admired the way Alden contrasted the high school students and the college students. She paints the student’s mother and grandmother as quite different people–contrasting characters, in the same way the high school students and college students contrasted.
The effect of this passage is to make the reader wonder about the student. Who was he? A country kid who’d hooked up with druggies? A boy struggling with depression? The passage’s single line of dialogue stands out. Suddenly the reader knows that Brian has talked about Miriam, his teacher, to other people. Now we know why she’s there, although we don’t yet know the nature of her relationship to the boy.
As you read this passage, imagine how it might have read if Alden had chosen to fully dramatize the action. She would have had a cacophony of voices, longer descriptions, more physical actions, and a clock ticking slowly as Miriam and the others waited for news. However, in fiction, if there’s no tension between characters–no arm wrestling and one-upmanship–you’re better off not trying to dramatize the action. Use summary passages (aka “exposition”) or half-scenes instead.
Miriam was not unacquainted with depression. And not just from the literature, as they say. She knew what it felt like to want to die, or maybe more precisely in her case, to want not to be alive. She had had those moments. Who hasn’t? But she saw that on the continuum of despair, Brian had traveled much farther than she ever had, and it shocked her. It bewildered her. He was not out of the woods yet, she learned from the little crowd of students who had gathered in the intensive-care waiting room. The next twenty-four hours would tell. His liver, struggling. Not out of the woods yet–where did that expression come from? Those woods frightened her–how dark and deep they seemed, how lost one would be in them. Then there was the fact that he didn’t want to live. She had assumed, naively she now saw, that he’d be as happy to be alive as she was that he lived. But he still wanted to die.
She sat with the students, listening to them. Some were from the college and six or seven were high school students. Immediately Miriam knew, seeing them, especially the high school students, that they were into drugs. They looked normal enough, they weren’t punked out with orange, spiked hair and multiple body piercings, but there was about them an air of secret, clandestine lives, a facade of passing that didn’t quite obscure the sense that all was not as it seemed. She bet they lied to their parents and were home as little as possible.
The college students were harder to peg. They were typical of the students at the college, unusually bright, good-looking kids, each one accustomed to succeeding, standing out, taking oneself seriously as a Self. One, a handsome/pretty young man, introduced himself to her as Matthew, and made a point of telling her that he was not just a friend of Brian’s. What did he mean? Miriam inferred some sort of sexual relationship, though she hadn’t imagined that Brian was gay or bisexual. But of course that age was given to sexual experimentation, confusion, ambiguity. It was sort of cool at the college to be bisexual, and Brian was very attractive physically, with his bright good looks, his boyish energy, his mixture of innocence and experience.
The chaplain of the college arrived with a woman whom she introduced as Brian’s mother, Karen, and an older woman, Barb, his grandmother. They had just arrived from Tennessee, had been in to see Brian, and now wanted to say a few words to the waiting students. Miriam introduced herself, explained her role as Brian’s teacher. “Oh, I’ve heard about you from Brian!” Karen exclaimed, reaching out for Miriam, who embraced her. Karen was about Miriam’s own age, maybe a few years older, though it was hard to say. Miriam saw that Karen lived a different life from herself. Miriam hadn’t had children, she fancied herself a writer, she taught in college, she had a thin veneer of sophistication, whereas Karen was just folks, part of the real world, a divorced, somewhat overweight, middle-aged woman in a pants suit, someone without pretension and not many options. Miriam shook the hand of the grandmother, a woman in her seventies, still vital and weathered into a kind of tempered steel. She was wearing a royal-blue sweat suit and Nikes, sensible traveling clothes, Miriam noted.
Alden, Paulette. Unforgettable: Short Stories (pp. 18-19). Radiator Press. Kindle Edition.
If the passage above had been written in scene, meaning with the clock ticking in pseudo-real-time, the scene would be called a non dramatic scene. That’s–duh!–because there’s no drama in the scene. There’s tension, but no drama. Got it?
The Take-Home Lesson
“Show, don’t tell” still rings true. However, there are times when “tell and show” is the more effective storytelling strategy. In this post I’ve talked about three of those times:
- when you’re introducing a character;
- giving us an overview of a setting;
- or, collapsing a non dramatic scene into summary.
Next week I’m going to provide some more examples of “tell and show.” Stay tuned.
Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, a short story collection, and THE RUG BAZAAR, a chapbook. Her books and stories have won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Jeanne M. Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, a Readers’ Favorites Gold Medal for Drama, the American Literary Review Fiction Prize, and many others. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and when not reading or writing books, she loves to walk on the beach and explore National Parks.