Constructing Your Story: Show Don’t Tell

The last, and perhaps for me in many ways, the most important of the Unbreakables. Show Don’t Tell.

I feel like there should be a drumroll..And maybe a trumpet. Or bugle..


I’ve been up under and all around this one, because I recognise that some people just plain don’t like it. And being set against something from the start makes it very hard to even consider there might be anything worth hearing. But no matter which way I spin it, this is the best way to sum up this effect. And its a very, very important one to my mind; the fundament of modern novel writing.

Most of those who don’t like the rule probably don’t like it for the same reason I take issue with those who get wound up about grammar. Not because grammar isn’t important but because those trying to ram it down our throats don’t have a clue what they are talking about. It isn’t about restricting how you use it but understanding the effect of whatever you choose to use.  I talked about many of the misconceptions concerning the Show Don’t Tell rule here, most of which can be summarised by saying that if you regard show don’t tell as a writing technique then like any technique you are free to pick and choose when and where and certainly can’t be expected to write your entire book using it.

I suspect it arose when someone was trying to illustrate a point. Don’t tell me she was happy, show me her giggling and bouncing on her toes. It’s a great example. It instantly brings a picture to mind and so many other details become unnecessary – we see a child, young, joyful, excited. It doesn’t just tell us one piece of  information but begins to set a scene. The problem is when those who think in very literal straight lines take this and lay it down as a law. Suddenly you can’t say ‘he was angry’ you must show a vein popping in his forehead. You can’t say ‘he was nervous’ you must say ‘he was shivering’. We start to create a literary language, a limited pool from which we can draw and which has nothing to do with life, your vision or your natural voice and everything to do with conforming to a set of arbitrary dictates. For some people rules make it very easy to know when you are right and when you are wrong. Or so they think. It doesn’t work like that though.

What if I were to tell you I bounce on my toes when I am excited? And I left childhood quite a while ago. Instantly the picture begins to change, the assumptions you have made undermined. We’re not just being told of the characters feelings in that moment but being given an insight into who they are. But – and this is crucial in understanding show – we’re being given insight without judgement. I could say the character is childlike, but that is a judgement, it leads us to expect further evidence of this, its shuts down other interpretations both of the situation and the character. By showing this isolated reaction I leave it open ended. One layer in a not yet complete picture. Show allows us to build a great deal more complexity and depth into our worlds without contradicting what has been told (unless you want to!) and crucially forcing the reader to engage. The right information will ignite curiosity, they’ll want to complete the picture in order to be able to make that judgement themselves. If we hand it to them on a plate there is nothing left to discover.

That doesn’t however mean we never make or write judgements – it really isn’t that easy. People make judgements, bet at some point recently you’ve thought something like, wow he’s pissed.. so since we’re people writing about people, you can’t filter these out.

Show don’t tell is an Effect. The effect is to make your reader feel as if they are immersed in your story. To allow them to see it as bright and real and inescapable as any moment they have lived.  The first example does this.

Don’t tell me she was happy, show me her giggling and bouncing on her toes.

The other examples, not so much. Not only are they not particularly realistic – do veins ever pop? without ambulances following.. – but they aren’t found in your scene or any scene. They are stock phrases plucked from a pile, a well worn pile – like shoes at a bowling alley, that despite the stink of countless feet and worn down soles and frayed laces, have never seen the light of day, known a pavement or a car or even lain amongst the half eaten monster munch and old copies of Empire magazines underneath someone’s bed (. .. fine.. OK magazines.. I like the pretty pictures). They’ve never known mud, or rain. Never ran for their lives or for a bus.


The point is to put us in your Story. Your World. You cannot do that by resorting to clichés. You cannot do that by hijacking your voice. You cannot do that by abandoning character. It isn’t so much a matter of how but rather what: What details you show, what judgements you make, what you tell your reader.

So why not just say that? Why all this ‘don’t tell’ stuff? I mean we tell a story, telling us not to tell a story seems redundant especially if you are telling us that’s not really what you are telling us at all?

😀 okay that was fun.. sorry. But, actually that’s exactly what I am telling you. Don’t tell me. Show me. If you regard it as a technique both styles will come into play. As an effect, only one should. The reader must close the last page feeling like they have seen a world. Been shown a story, met characters, lived through  battles, loves lost… Not told. Tell is an effect as much as Show is. One that distances you from the story, that emphasizes it’s not real, not for you.

Ever found yourself listening to a story trying to muster a smile though you cannot imagine at what, while your friend doing the telling is falling of her chair as she’s laughing so hard? When she finally calms down she says, you had to be there? That’s pretty much the Holy Grail of Show Don’t Tell. And it is really hard to quantify it which is why you end up with

Don’t tell me she was happy, show me her giggling and bouncing on her toes.

It really is the easiest way,  but it doesn’t begin to encompass it, especially if you break it down to a sentence form. I’ve quoted from Emma before, the opening sentence which taken by current rules seems like a startling piece of tell, yet in actual fact the book achieves the goal of Show Don’t Tell and the evidence is in that first line.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable homelife and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the very best blessings of existence

Much of it can’t really be understood until we’ve read the rest of the book, however taking it on its own what it does is give us a clear picture of the character and in doing so immediately provokes a reaction from the reader. Quite frankly she seems a little smug and we’re salivating in anticipation of her downfall. Emotional engagement is the bulls eye Show Don’t Tell is aiming for, it’s the bulls eye all the Unbreakables are aiming for. Like the friend falling of her stool – if we could have seen what she seen would we have had the same reaction? Detail is important but we’ve become too fixated on dictating what sort it is without considering what the point of including that particular detail is. We just think, ‘oh its show, that’s what I am supposed to do’, rather than consider how it adds to our story, our scene, our mood. We’ve also gotten really overly hung up on it being action specific, when in fact it can be given as action, feeling, thought or fact, the only questions that should limit it are, is it character specific, world specific and voice specific?

The second thing you can feel in the sentence above is a voice. A voice that continues in the next sentence and the next and the next… Voice is a big part of Show Don’t tell. Some might say it only really comes into consideration in First person. But I disagree. Voice is the lens through which we filter everything. Created not just by how you form sentences but what words you choose, what you see, what you care about, your own peculiar world view. Elmore Leonard, Hunter S Thompson, Graham Greene were just some of the writers who wrote in third yet carried their world oozing and leaking out of every word of their prose.

Or how about this..

Stars are beautiful, but they may not take an active part in anything, they must just look on for ever. It is a punishment put on them for something they did so long ago that no star now knows what it was. So the older ones have become glassy-eyed and seldom speak (winking is the star language), but the little ones still wonder.

JM Barrie’s tale was about whimsy and wonder and so was his prose. It let us look at the world through the mind of a child. An adult vocabulary to allow him a full palette, but a willingness to bend grammar and convention to his whim in the way a child does, to recreate through words the absurd ever evolving imagination and curiously logical illogic. I honestly believe nothing creates your world more thoroughly than voice.

Imagine if in the third book JK had handed her pen over to Chuck Wendig? You might think how cool, but it would have been a novelty, one that the fans would likely have considered not *really* a Harry Potter book. It isn’t just about having voice its about maintaining it consistently. I told you all the Unbreakables bled into each other (I’ll try to restrain my smug grin 😀 ..try…) There is a current initiative to have today’s bestsellers rewrite Jane Austen’s novels, but without her voice does her story become, like the friend falling of the chair, something someone is telling you? If you are coming to it without having read the original perhaps not, but for those of us who love her world something fundamental and irreplaceable will be lost.

Consistency doesn’t just mean voice, though that’s probably where your readers will notice it most.  If you have a vein popping in someone’s forehead when the bad guy is mean to them and previously you’ve gone on and on about their lovely thick fringe.. not all readers will notice that, but what if your Veggie Vampire is being chased by Veal Loving Vamps.. you go to the store cupboard pull out.. his legs pumped, his heart thudding, gasping as he desperately sucked down a lungful… he’s a vampire.. They will notice that one.

Or if you spend passages telling us what a heartless beast a character is but we never see it. We never feel angry with him, horrified by him, we’re just told we should be.. Telling is fine as a technique but it requires a support mesh of show – all those details, all consistent, all weaving together to form a delicate tension between reader and story, a sticky emotional belief in what is unfolding that keeps them enthralled.

I have a feeling I have spraffed on more than usual. I could probably fill about a hundred pages with this one and still feel like I had only covered the basics. So I’ll stop, hopefully before you stopped reading 😀 And I’ll end with a wee example..

I could start a book

Jack Reacher was angry.

Tell? Maybe, for the Sentence Judgers it would be deemed so, some would be rushing off to raid the store cupboard.

I could then pull back, start to describe the scene

The diner was small. A mom and pop affair, though by now mom and pop were probably senile or six feet under or retired in Key West. The seat was warm beneath him. A dark red leather worn and frayed.  The pie was hot. Peaches grown in a can. Sugar fermented in a packet. Pastry made in China. Good enough for him.

Show? By sentence definition most would say aye. From the Cliché cupboard? Mmm.. maybe some pieces but it has voice and (I’ve never read Reacher so I am reaching a bit..forgive me!) a consistent one.

By my definition both are fine and both are show. You have emotional engagement – ooh he’s angry, but why is he angry? He is enjoying his pie. You have detail to create a picture. Although none of it action specific or seemingly related to first piece of tell. Too many would suggest  ‘show us he is angry by how he eats his pie, by his grip on the spoon, by the way his jaw locks, the vein in his forehead pops..

Except of course that isn’t Jack. He’s enjoying his pie. Its got nothing to do with why he is angry. He just happens to be eating it as he waits. And by giving us those details and that piece of tell, you’ve given us a very intriguing insight into what kind of man we are dealing with. This is where I suppose you’re expecting me to tell you exactly what kind of man he is. Except I can’t think of the right words. It was just much easier to show you.