When trying to get to grips with any concept, or word for that matter, there is only one place to start: Wiki it. Its not the last word or the definitive word but when it comes to getting a quick easy to grasp overview and handy arrow to further information it should definitely be the first word.
So what does Wiki have to say about Show don’t tell?
Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description.
It then goes on to list Earnest Hemingway as a seminal influence on the development and dissemination of the concept. Not surprisingly. If there is any advice more common than Show don’t tell and avoid adverbs in writing circles its simply Be Hemingway. He is held, generally, as the grandfather of modern prose, both by those who despair of the minimalist style that is supposedly all but unavoidable if you seek publication and those who see it, as Leonard and King have both publically claimed, as the ideal form.
Minimalist writing in the tradition of Hemingway has been taught for so many decades that much of what is published these days lacks character and colour ~ Dean Koontz
And when you compare Wiki’s summation with Hemingway’s own words you can feel how one might be said to have influenced the other, certainly there is at the core a similar intent.
The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text ~ Wikipaedia
..a writer … may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things ~ Hemingway
His principle theory – he himself called it the Iceberg theory though its also known as the theory of omission – postulates that much of a text can be left out and be the stronger for it, if the writer is skilled enough. In particular, emotions, and words specific to their evocation, reduced the effect, making it read false. Rather he suggested a focus on images and scenes, concrete objects, not abstract concepts and feelings.
…the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always…~ Death in the Afternoon
Much like when I first read, oh so innocently, Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing, I felt unexpected connection with his words. There are so many things in life that words feel utterly inadequate to encompass and I haven’t seen a fraction of the horrors Hemingway witnessed. Is there any writer in the world who hasn’t felt this?
The most important things are the hardest thing to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish your feelings, words shrink things that seem timelss when they are in your head to no more than living size ~ Stephen King
But isn’t that the ultimate skill we are all trying to master? Anyone can access a dictionary. Everyone knows the correct word – valour, sorrow, hope – only a storyteller knows which is the right word. And why.
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them … and had read them … now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it ~ Hemingway
However, while Hemingway’s aim in creating a purer emotional experience lines up with Wiki’s definition of the end goal of Show Don’t tell, his delivery varies in two key ways. Wiki claims that the objective is to eschew ‘exposition, summarization and description’. Even in Hills Like White Elephants, the short story that cemented Hemingway’s reputation as the master of adverb free prose, description features heavily. What distinguishes his style was the nature of the description. Hemingway put the emphasis on the external and objective. And it was powerful.
The Hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain made of strings of bamboo beads hung across the open door into the bar to keep out the flies ~ Hills Like White Elephants
The curious effect of a pervasive lack of emotion is that it becomes an emotion in itself. Which was Hemingway’s aim. In Wikispaces Anders Hallengren describes the opening passage of A Farewell to Arms impact:
In that passage the power of concentration reaches a peak, forming a vivid and charged sequence… packed with events and excitement, yet significantly frosty, as if unresponsive and numb, like a silent flashback dream sequence in which bygone images return, pass in review and fade away, leaving emptiness and quietude behind them.
He created a tone, a unchanging monotone, defined by his unique voice that worked far more effectively to immerse us in the emotions of the story than any superficial facts contained within the text, whether those took the form of character emotion, external description or narrative summation.
Voice is an important part of Show Don’t tell, one rarely mentioned, perhaps because of its correlation with authorial intrusion, the assumption that it is almost automatically a result of the judgement of an external narrator being imprinted on the text rather than an integral part of the story. However, effect and aim are not the same thing and voice is rarely fully under the author’s conscious control. It’s not uncommon to find that what you are being told to think and feel are at odds with the emotions being evoked.
Which brings us to the second key difference in approach between Hemingway and Wiki. While Wiki believes ‘senses, thoughts and feelings’ to be the means to creating Show, these are the things Hemingway was most at pains to remove. Direct thought, which has become a staple of the modern novel, and many (me, mostly) would suggest is a cheat’s route to summation, is rare to absent in Hemingway’s work. Sensory input, when it is given, is given through description, and feelings are delivered in brief expository sentences, usually named as the ultimate no-no in Show Don’t tell, and yet they often worked to heighten curiosity rather than function as explanation.
The wife liked him. She liked the deadly serious way he received any complaints. She liked his dignity. She liked the way he wanted to serve her. She liked the way he felt about being a hotel-keeper. She liked his old, heavy face and big hands ~ The Cat in the Rain
It is the apparent simplicity and directness of his prose that served to give that unique sense of remove and ambiguity, something no other writer has been able to replicate. Despite the fact that his style is reportedly so popular that there is an app named after him. Run your text through the this and it will judge how well you hit the master’s mark. Guess how good Hemingway is at being Hemingway? 😀
Is Hemingway right and Wiki wrong? They almost seem like positive and negative sides of the same image. It is the blank, colourless spaces that define that unique sense of emptiness within his work, yet Wiki, perhaps reflecting countless modern bestsellers, has crowded those voids with thoughts and feelings, digging, Hemingway might have suggested, beneath the waves, yet rarely allowing us to pop our heads up and get a lay of the land. On a purely technical level it might be summarised as the difference between the omniscient ‘external’ narrator still prevalent in Hemingway’s day and the much more popular third person limited most modern works adopt: The ‘internal’ narrator.
I would personally say that either approach is entirely valid, the intent and the effect being far more crucial than the techniques employed, as long as – in Hemingway’s words – the writer ‘knows enough about what he is writing’. However, it is curious that something named ‘show’ seems to be defined almost entirely by what is not visible.