And finally. The end. I promise. Its been fun though.. I had fun anyway. Oh I love Show.. 😀
Before I address the final bit of advice out there for show and tell, I thought I’d do a quick summary of what’s been covered thus far. If you’re not confused, well I am.. I don’t do straight forward, bullet point thinking. I should learn.
What is show?
Funny thing is and this is probably why you’ll tend to find so many of those ‘don’t lists’ breeding on writers sites, it’s easier to get specific when it comes to what it isn’t. The good news about this don’t list is that every single thing on it you’re not only free to do (in a ‘I won’t waggle my finger disapprovingly’ way, obviously there isn’t actually a Rules of Writing Pedants Enforcement Squad) but much of it I would even say you’d be a fool not to use. The only ‘don’t’ part is in your perception of show and believing that applying any of the list will act like a polyjuice potion and transform your ms instantly.
- it isn’t only one style – gothic grand or lean and mean, any can be show
- it isn’t cliches
- it isn’t specific to one element – be that action, description, dialogue or exposition
- it isn’t expansion
- it isn’t only what can be seen
- it isn’t limited to one pov
- living it
And every book I ever read that I loved, I wanted to live it. Didn’t you? And that’s where I want to end. Because I really am just that in love with show. I believe in it that much. It’s my holy grail. And its why I wrote five very very (sorry again..) long pieces on it and its why I wanted to write this last part, so I could end on this note. Not a dissection of misinterpretation or anything that involves bickering and waggling fingers and sneery shaking heads (I can be guilty of it, I know..) but with a plea, a passionate paean (fancy word for waxing devotedly) to what it can be, how it can work for you.
The last piece of advice as regards show is a soundbite. The soundbite of soundbites. So simple, short and pithy it might seem utterly worthless. It is however the oldest mention of it I can track down, predating Hemingway by decades, and for my money (what little I have, I’m all in) its the finest example out there. No other sentence does so much, so concisely, so eloquently to let us see at a glance show at work.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass ~ Anton Chekov
I have – frequently – come across people suggesting that the first part is tell, verbatim, yet interpret the second half as a suggestion of what show must now endeavour to do. They ask ‘how might we show the glint of light on broken glass?‘ ‘showing the light on broken glass will likely slow the pace as you embellish the scene, we need to choose carefully when and where to follow this advice’.
In truth you have two sentences in the one quote, two whole and sufficient examples of tell and show.
The moon is shining ~ Tell
Light glints on broken glass ~ Show
Two sentences. Two effects. And two comparable word counts.
Chekov is obviously most famous for writing plays, where one could literally show the light on broken glass, no words required 😀 However it is actually believed that the quote may be a bastardisation of some advice he gave his brother, an aspiring writer.
“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.”
Quite a few more words, a more complete scene, though certainly nothing excessive. Yet wonders of wonders the bastardized form is actually better for the purposes of understanding. Most specifically because it pits show against its opposite, tell. A great many writers really dislike the ‘don’t tell’ part of the axiom. But I believe its necessary. Without it its like flipping the light on during the middle of the day. Only the contrast allows us to fully appreciate the form and how easily, how even a slight one or two degree change in approach, can be the ruination or the making of your story.
More generally the bastardisation addresses Show directly, while Chekov was merely offering some practical advice on description and specifically setting your scene. Show isn’t only about one aspect of your work, its about the effect of the whole. I know I am starting to repeat myself, I just think its always worth bearing in mind.
In the first part we addressed the idea of ‘the concrete’, Hemingway’s words, which as we saw have frequently been interpreted to mean what can be seen. And it is where he put quite a bit of emphasis, because ,of course, much of how we interact with the world is about what we can see. Including concrete details can work for you whatever your style; real tangible objects, sights, behaviours, sounds, and everything else that makes up our worlds, work to ground your reader. But its not just any concrete image – we’re in London, there’s the Eye, there’s the shard.. job done.
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 ~ Hemingway
The right details to give us the right flavour of your world. ‘The moon is shining’ is like soy sauce, so generic you can find it – or hide it- in virtually any dish being served up. It tells you nothing about the night, the world, the characters, the story. And forget tell, it doesn’t show you anything that makes you want to know more. A moon rises over Isengard, just as it rises over St. Mary’s Mead, just as it shines on Stoke-on-Trent. It can reveal graverobbers or lovers; it’s anything. The point is, decide what you want it to be and then focus on that.
Concrete isn’t just about incorporating the tangible, its about crystallising the scene in the readers head. Moving from low-def to hi-def. Light glints on broken glass:We have zeroed in. And in doing so, as Hemingway believed, moved the reader closer to the actual experience. It is this that is the true distinction of narrative closeness that show allows. We want always to keep the reader close, regardless of what mode we are writing in or what pace the story is unfolding at.
Another way it is often rendered is specificity. You can choose to drown your reader in twenty paragraphs of detail, but as Chekov shows its not necessary. The right detail can do what no amount of ‘tell’ ie generic waffling, can.
What does ‘light glints on broken glass’ suggest to us that ‘the moon is shining’ does not? Both tell us it is night. But the latter puts our attention in the sky with a picture likely of a round moon. Its not a particularly dark picture. The former focuses our attention towards the ground, and suggests only faint light, creating a much darker and through that, more sinister feel.
‘The moon is shining’ has no action nor sense of agency, unless its followed by ‘he’d just had some wonderful news..‘ But glass don’t break itself. And barring Greek weddings, its rarely a happy event (although me at the bottle bank comes close). We’re either in the midst of some violent action, in the aftermath of violence, or about to become embroiled in some carnage. And that’s story.
One five word sentence has done what I took two paragraphs to explain, and all that explaining never put you into the scene.
Because what you don’t tell the reader is as important as what you do. This idea of reduction and allowing the reader to figure stuff out is at the crux of show and yet it is probably the most misinterpreted. Hemingway’s entire style was one of reduction and he mostly took a neutral and detached pov. Neither are necessary for show. Adjectives, adverbs, dialogue attributions, feelings and description are not the enemy and they are not absent from his work. He knew how to apply them to get the effect he desired and the way everyone seems to have reacted as if they weren’t even there is probably the best evidence of how well he did it.
It’s not about making your reader work and definitely not about getting them to do your work for you. It’s about getting them engaged enough to care and to, more specifically, need to know what happens next. If you leave nothing unexplained the effect is the same as finishing the story. Tell shuts down the narrative flow, the sense of more to come.
Think of it like a jigsaw. If I show you a square of blue, you think, that’s a pretty colour. If I show you this..
…you wonder what the whole picture looks like. And there are degrees. If I give you a hint of a cloud, or the nose of a plane, I’m giving you a little more to play with, some would say this is the ideal, others would argue it gives away so much as to make the point almost redundant. There is obviously a difference between leaving your reader wanting to know more about what is going and leaving them thinking wtf is going on. We shouldn’t mistake confusion for curiosity but knowing where the line lies can be tricky especially as we as writers know our stories only from the inside out.
In the age of Show (misinterpreted) we have an entire breed of stories springing up littered with endless paragraphs of actions. He walked, she opened, they put one foot in front of the other for an entire bloody book… which might just be the dullest reading in the world, rivalled only by the story in part three: we went to see cats..ohhh i’m yawning.. (really!!) Action for the sake of action, is really dull. Part of why many try and pep it up with loads of exposition and rumination and adverbs. Instead consider what your action can tell us, without telling us.
Or in the case of ‘light glints on broken glass’ what action is suggested when giving other pieces of information creating a dynamic rather than static quality to your story? Sentences should be such an integral organic part of your narrative that their role within it should not be easy to parse down to only one function.
Okay I’m going to wrap it up and try to resist any more devoted waxing. I’ll just say this: Show someone a jigsaw piece and they want to know the complete picture, but to do that they have to put it together. In literary terms, they have to keep reading. And if they do, if they piece it together, a curious thing happens, they aren’t just spectators anymore. They become part of the story.
And now I am away to see when the next Show Offs Anonymous meeting is..