Why You Should “Show, Don’t Tell”
Photo by Sergey Semin on Unsplash
Let your story come to life on the big screen of your imagination.
No survivors? Then where do the stories come from — I wonder.
― Captain Jack Sparrow
When Pirates of the Caribbean came out, I was enamored with the movie. I loved Johnny Depp’s version of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Why? Because he brought the character to life. He was full of personality, beyond the typical.
Captain Jack, whether by his own devices — which was most often — or because of others’ machinations, meant trouble. The big screen came alive when he stepped into the camera view. That is what your stories need to do. How do you do that?
You show us instead of telling us.
What do you mean to show?
Pat’s brook-brown eyes had been staring through the little round window in the wall above the landing until Judy had made her mysterious remark about the parsley bed. It was her favourite window, opening outward like the port-hole of a ship. She never went up to Judy’s room without stopping to look from it. Dear little fitful breezes came to that window that never came anywhere else and you saw such lovely things out of it. The big grove of white birch on the hill behind it which gave Silver Bush its name and which was full of dear little screech owls that hardly ever screeched but purred and laughed. Beyond it all the dells and slopes and fields of the old farm, some of them fenced in with the barbed wire Pat hated, others still surrounded by the snake fences of silvery-grey “longers,” with golden-rod and aster thick in their angles.
~L.M. Montgomery, Pat of Silver Bush, from Project Gutenberg Australia.
One of my all-time favorite writers is Lucy Maud Montgomery, best known for writing Anne of Green Gables. I read these like candy when I was a kid. Why? Because she brought her scenery to life, it was a character in her book with all the other characters.
I wanted so bad to visit Prince Edward Island in Canada. It is still on my bucket list. As an adult, I even bought silver bushes to plant in my backyard because I longed to capture that feeling she evokes in her books, with such a strong sense of place and time that I experienced through her writing.
When I think about the stories and the feelings, my heart still sings from the adventure of reading Anne of Green Gables and Pat of Silver Bush as a child.
You will noticeMontgomery chose strong, active, descriptive verbs and nouns for her settings. She did not just tell us. She showed us by evoking emotion with her words, so we experienced Pat’s joy and love of her home.
Montgomery’s word choices turn her scenery, place, and time into a distinct character of a home.
When you show instead of tell, your characters will jump right off the page and live.
It was broad daylight when Anne awoke and sat up in bed, staring confusedly at the window through which a flood of cheery sunshine was pouring and outside of which something white and feathery waved across glimpses of blue sky.
For a moment she could not remember where she was. First came a delightful thrill, as something very pleasant; then a horrible remembrance. This was Green Gables and they didn’t want her because she wasn’t a boy!
But it was morning and, yes, it was a cherry-tree in full bloom outside of her window. With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash — it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.
~L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, from Lit2Go website.
Anne is a strong-headed and imaginative little girl who you immediately fall in love with. She is not perfect, possessing a runaway tongue that often lands her in trouble, or at least causes her to be misunderstood or thought rude.
The minute you start reading, you are immersed in the story. You are Anne of Green Gables. I spent hours buried deep in my mother’s walk-in closet with a flashlight reading these books, spending time with the characters and the place.
I miss that closet cave.
Reading this author as a child is one reason why I strive to make my writing vivid; however, L. M. Montgomery was the master of the art. I’m still learning and practicing.
This is a good definition of show vs. tell, from the Reedsy Blog. They said it best.
Show, don’t tell is a writing technique in which story and characters are related through sensory details and actions rather than exposition. It fosters a style of writing that’s more immersive for the reader, allowing them to “be in the room” with the characters.
In his most commonly repeated quoted, Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~From the Reedsy Blog.
There are techniques you can use in show vs. tell.
Sometimes it is just the right word choice that can change the whole perception of a scene, a mood, or a conversation. The right word choice can paint a powerful picture.
Below is a list of techniques, with example quotes of the technique being used.
Bring your setting to life — Give it a sense of place, time, and character.
Montgomery added emotion within the description by adding these words: ‘dear little screech’, ‘purred and laughed’. She creates a vivid visual with such words as dells, slopes, fields, old farm, ‘fenced in with barbed wire’ (another way to add emotion: Pat hated barbed wire,) snake fences, silvery-grey longers, golden-rod and ‘aster thick in their angles’.
Example excerpt of showing through setting:
“The big grove of white birch on the hill behind it which gave Silver Bush its name and which was full of dear little screech owls that hardly ever screeched but purred and laughed. Beyond it all the dells and slopes and fields of the old farm, some of them fenced in with the barbed wire Pat hated, others still surrounded by the snake fences of silvery-grey “longers,” with golden-rod and aster thick in their angles.”
~L. M. Montgomery, Pat of Silver Bush
Show — describe the action using action words.
Montgomery creates action with such phrases as: ‘with a bound’, ‘out of bed and across the floor’, ‘she pushed up the sash — it went up stiffly and creakily’ (she added sound, creakily), and ‘stuck so tight.’
Example excerpt showing through action:
“But it was morning and, yes, it was a cherry-tree in full bloom outside of her window. With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash — it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.”
~L. M. Montgomery, Pat of Silver Bush
Use of dialogue
Montgomery uses dialogue to reveal character in patterns of speech that set a regional tone and feel to the places she depicted. The dialogue is snappy and fanciful, telling a lot about the character speaking in the way they thought, their attitude, and age. It also characterized Anne by showing us how other people viewed her, giving us a sense of personality.
Example excerpt showing in dialogue:
“A quare child, if ye’ll belave me,” Judy used to say, shaking her grizzled head. But she would have put the black sign on any one else who called Pat a queer child.
“What makes her queer?” Sidney had asked once, a little belligerently. Sidney loved Pat and didn’t like to hear her called queer.
“Sure, a leprachaun touched her the day she was born wid a liddle green rose-thorn,” answered Judy mysteriously.
Judy knew all about leprachauns and banshees and water-kelpies and fascinating beings like that.
“So she can’t ever be just like other folks. But it isn’t all to the bad. She’ll be after having things other folks can’t have.”
“What things?” Sidney was curious
~L. M. Montgomery, Pat of Silver Bush
It is all in the details.
Montgomery’s writing is timeless. She is brilliant with details in her choices, imparting mood, attitudes, and evoking emotion. I highlighted the words in the example that really stand out and set that tone.
An example excerpt how details can bring out mood and emotion:
“There upon Anne held her tongue so obediently and thoroughly that her continued silence made Marilla rather nervous, as if in the presence of something not exactly natural. Matthew also held his tongue, — but this was natural, — so that the meal was a very silent one.”
~L.M. Montgomery,Anne of Green Gables from Lit2Go website.”
Do you ever use telling in your story?
Sometimes, telling can help you slow the story pace or transition quickly. You may need the reader to know something beyond any doubt to create clarity in the storytelling.
The moments of telling are specifically chosen by the author for effect on the reader and story engagement, to keep the story moving, but without bogging it down in lengthy exposition.
You see telling used after lots of action or to reveal something or give information as you transition to another scene or within a scene. There are places where telling is needed in the story.
Be selective. Make the telling count whether it is to bring out clarity and slow the pace; or transition, imparting information in a natural way that is not jarring but engaging.
The fact is, you should not have too much of either showing or telling. Find the balance that makes your story work.
What about first drafts?
Okay, I will only say this here, and it is the only time you should not worry about it too much. If you tell your first draft, that is perfectly okay. Many of us do that, including me, and when that happens, I tell everyone my Muse handed me a whole story in beats.
Has that happened to me? Yes, twice with stories in a genre I don’t write or read much: middle grade. It was kind of an awesome experience. I wish my Muse would do that with all my stories.
Telling creates story beats that can work as an outline when the real writing begins in revision.
What are story beats?
They are the smallest increments of story, according to Katherine Cowley. They hold key points of action, dialogue, reaction, setting, emotion, and character conveying your story’s whole idea in small measure.
Save The Cat by Blake Snyder talks about using story beats as an outline. You can have 30 to 100 or more pages of beats for a novel. This book favors learning to write movie scripts, but it can also help you become a better writer; after all, books do get made into movies.