In many writing courses, you will be told firmly to ‘show, not tell’. But we’re telling stories, aren’t we? What’s wrong with ‘Once upon a time in a land far away lived a king and his three daughters’?
Thanks to cinema and television, our readers are more used than ever before to being shown a story as it unfolds. Yet even in relentless action-stories, you will find scenes where characters tell things to us and each other. Sometimes this is a deliberate relaxation in pace before a jolt into higher stakes (Pulp Fiction‘s Royale with cheese scene). Or it can release vulnerabilities in a character, as Ronald Colemon’s Sidney Carton does in this superb clip from A Tale of Two Cities (1935).
Both showing and telling have their uses. So, what is the difference between the two?
Let’s look at the first page of Dickens’ masterpiece, Great Expectations. Dickens’ words are in italics:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
Dickens starts by introducing us to his main character who tells us in the first person how he’s known by his childhood name. It’s endearing. Dickens knew it would be.
I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.
So poor old Pip’s father has died. In Pip’s voice, Dickens develops the lad’s tragic history:
As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.
What beautiful detail. Just where it’s needed. Dickens even brings in an odd little smile about his five little brothers’ headstones. It feels as if it just fell from the pen – but nothing is wasted, it is all precise.
Then, after just two vivid paragraphs of background, Pip draws us into the first, terrifying slice of action. Look how carefully Dickens places us in the churchyard, beside ‘the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry’:
Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
Take a moment to look at how much detail Dickens has given us so far, and how much he has not given. There is exactly as much as we need to see and feel the place and the small boy in it.
Now to raise the stakes sky high:
‘Hold your noise,’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. `Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’
Dickens is accused of verbosity but he’s anything but wordy here. There is no mawkish simile about ghosts ‘as a man started up from among the graves’ – the man is all too real. Dickens hurtles on with no time for verbs:
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
`O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror. `Pray don’t do it, sir.’
Being the master storyteller that he is, Dickens mixes the man’s suffering and poverty with absolutely clarity that he is dangerous company. It’s the perfect mix of show and tell. If the author or a character is explaining something, we are in ‘tell’ country. If we are in the midst of action and dialogue, we are being shown.
It’s all about telling our stories in the most engaging way possible. What engages our readers most is vivid characters, their thoughts, feelings, actions, their hopes and dreams.
So, when is telling good and when is it better to show? Both have their uses…
How to ‘show’?
- Dialogue. The surrounding text can be present or past tense – we will look at that in another post soon – and as each character speaks, we learn about that character as well as what is or is not going on. Please do not forget to bring in how they move as well; sometimes this can contradict their words.
- Action. The plainer your action language, especially your verbs, the stronger your action will be. Strip away as many adjectives and adverbs as you can, they just hold things up, and try not to forget ambience (changes in atmosphere) as well as action.
- Thoughts and unspoken feelings. Cinema, television and theatre use monologue as a diversion from the action to show us a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Where Hamlet comes to the front of the stage to say, ‘To be or not to be’ for example, the audience is entrusted with emotions he cannot share with anyone else. But visual media tend to use dramatic monologues sparingly and actors wrestle with ways to show their audience what they think and feel. For us fiction writers, those unexpressed inner workings, maybe unexpressed even to the characters themselves, are our special territory and whole books can be written in it. This is why fiction gives such unique depth of empathy with characters and has been credited with changing societies.
When is it better to TELL?
In fiction, first of all beware of the info-dump.
In your character work you will have discovered where your character was born, went to school, first fell in love, was first rejected or sacked, and how they feel about it all. Before Dickens wrote his first page of Great Expectations, he will have known all that too. Did he set down to tell us at length, or did he bring us as quickly as possible into one of the most terrifying scenes ever written? Agents can tell beginners by the slabs of casual biography dropped into their sample pages, known as info-dumps.
Train yourself to spot an info-dump – a boring slab of ‘tell’ – and learn to spin it, as Dickens did, in engaging ways. There. That’s all there is to it.
How can ‘tell’ serve our story?
Use it above all to vary your pace, tone and the rhythm of your story.
- It can bring some distance before or after a heated scene or crisis.
- A quiet moment, in a garden for example, between crises can raise poignancy, especially if your character is not likely to survive (for example, Jesus’s time alone in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion).
- You can slow down the action to stretch a scene and deliberately raise stakes.
- You can use it for you as author or for a character to comment ironically on what has just been, or to raise a question that will not be answered yet.
- It can be a handy way to carry your story in a few lines across time, geography or culture.
The best description uses those few precise details that bring us there, not forgetting our five-plus senses.
Proportions of show and tell?
Many writers begin by thinking that the main job is telling, with intervals of showing. If anything, it’s the other way around.
Yes, you will have plenty of classic books on your shelves and e-reader that do it that way, but our readers today have often been educated by cinema and television screens and this means two things. Not only do they expect to be in the middle of a story as it unfolds – a trick incidentally as old as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – but they do not need as much detail as previous generations did. They like to guess. Credit your reader with being a few steps ahead of you and you will rarely be wrong.
So it’s show and tell, with a strong emphasis on show, being aware of both and the jobs they can do to engage your readers to the maximum.
Two people are arguing in a car park. They get into the same car which moves off.
- You are one of the two people. Tell us what is going on in the present tense as it’s happening, in the first person with dialogue and action.
- You are a reporter watching from a distance, not involved. Write your report in the third person, after the event so past tense, for your local newspaper.
- Write the same scene in dialogue only.
- Using your text from 3, add one sentence of action between each line of dialogue, eg: ‘A yawns, looks at his mobile’, ‘B pulls her skirt down over her knees’. Action only please, no description or thoughts. See how much you can convey in those lines of action about where and who they are, eg: ‘B kicks the tarmac’.
What do you notice? What difference does it make to your writing to be among the dialogue and action? How do you bring feelings into play? How does your balance of show and tell affect the stakes?
There are no right or wrong answers here; it’s a matter of being aware of what you’re after and how you bring it about. The distant observer can throw up questions that raise the stakes just as effectively as telling the story from the point of view of a terrified child in the back seat of the car.
Finally, in just two or three paragraphs each, without ever stating the obvious, describe all or any of the following. It’s up to you how you show or tell:
Harry was thrilled to be going on a date for the first time in ages.
If she had to put up with one more takeaway, she’d scream.
Sam stood outside the boss’s office shaking with fear.
Ellie hadn’t expected him to look so ill.
Any minute now she was going to grab his phone and throw it out the window.
The bedroom was a shambles.
The last thing she wanted was show how frightened she was.
It was a dark & stormy night…
Not long ago I met a radio and television celebrity who is working with an editor on a novel. What was the advice coming his way, time and time again? Show, not tell.
Happy writing – more next week!