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.





Walking the tightrope: the suspension of disbelief

Following on from the slightly controversial (which turned out not to be at all controversial) Likeable Characters, is the second Unbreakable, Suspension of Disbelief. I wonder if I can turn this one on its head too 😀

There is, on the surface, nothing remotely controversial about suspension of disbelief. Everyone I’ve ever met accepts it without question and everyone I’ve never met seems in agreement. Which would quite naturally raise the question, does it even merit a post? It even more naturally raises the question because most people assume its something the reader does, not the writer. The reader or film goer, or theatre luvvie chooses to suspend their disbelief going in, thus unburdening the writer of any need to consider it when writing.

A boy kidnapped by aliens grows up to lead a rag tag bunch of mercenaries including a racoon, a green skinned assassin and a talking tree? I am soooo looking forward to this. Others aren’t. It sounds ridiculous and they don’t understand how anyone can sit through it.

Everyone has to choose what and where they are willing to suspend their disbelief and we use lots of stuff to help us make that decision going in. For some fiction holds no appeal at all, they aren’t interested in make believe. Others eschew certain genres like fantasy as it is simply too far from reality for them to invest in. That choice is vital and very personal, but it doesn’t entirely rest with the reader. I know people who to their own surprise have been lured into reading genres they would normally automatically avoid, almost as though the writer is holding them against their will.

In no way do I believe on an intellectual level that a boy was kidnapped from earth and has grown up in space with a racoon and talking tree for friends. I don’t believe Rachel and Ross lived happily ever after or Hannibal Lector is running around looking for a nice wine to go with his dinner guest’s liver. The first and probably most vital component to suspending disbelief is emotional. Engage your audience on this level, make them care about what’s happening and however ludicrous it might be when stripped bare, they’ve stopped noticing. This connects back to likeable characters. We could be labelled utterly narcissistic, or simply human-centric, depending on your level of self hatred, but fundamentally we look for ourselves in almost everything. Watership Down is not about rabbits – rabbits don’t behave like that. Its about us with cute velvety noses and little bob tails. We can look at this and see ourselves.


Its why you are always advised to start a query by introducing your character, not your world. Why the right voice can keep you turning pages. I won’t go into character too much as I already have here, but I’ll repeat, the key is likeable, n. easy to like, because what you are doing is asking your reader to care. If they don’t all those other little niggles suddenly get much much much bigger.

This carries more stories than you can imagine, and it is particularly relevant in novels. Films and theatre can offer visual spectacle and a night out with popcorn to sway us when all else fails. But there is a second component to suspension of disbelief. This is the intellectual part and its also, I believe, the part that will engage the reluctant reader against their will. I know one reader who has never willingly made it past the first pages of a fantasy novel who is now knee deep in Game of Thrones. I imagine she’ll be buried by the time she actually finishes it 🙂

The second part is trickier, trickier to pin down and also trickier to achieve. Some might define it as consistency. A trust is built between reader and writer – a trust that you, having brought them into this world, introduced them to these characters, will not betray any involved. A couple of recent storms have shown that some writers don’t honour that trust. In the series The Tomorrow People the end twist saw one character betray his friends. Through constant threat of death they’d fought side by side, but when threatened with death he turned on them.. see the issue?

Consistency is something  I know I appreciate in any story, particularly when it comes to character, but I have to admit I don’t think its quite the right word. In the example above, was the real issue inconsistent behaviour or the fact we saw a likeable character turned into a bastard? And without any credible reason?

Soaps have made a feature out of complete undercutting and rewriting their own history. Story can survive even without consistency. And even while I would agree any story is the better for it, I would equally say a consistent story can still leave me fundamentally unable to suspend disbelief. It isn’t just that you maintain your rules, its the very nature of the rules you set up in the first place.

The only word I can think of is realism. I admit this might seem questionable, certainly within the more fantastical genres and I would qualify it by saying contextual realism. It’s definitely not about limiting the imagination. We can have flying unicorns and realism..


Think of it this way: every writer aims to engage the reader, to have them caught up with their characters as if they were real, caring about their story as if it were really happening. One way or another you have to get that effect across.

I have friends who, having enjoyed several series in the beginning, found the ever more ludicrous developments left them unwilling to keep reading. The last book of the Twilight series for many seemed to break the (bewildering) spell that Meyer had cast. Why? We have sparkly vampires, what could really be more absurd than that?

The answer highlights what is at the heart of contextual realism. Meyer gave us a world utterly bereft of consequence. It’s a basic truth of life, and much more importantly is at the very core of what Story means to us, that for every action there is a reaction. Story is our way of figuring out ‘what if?’. If we then take away any consequences we fundamentally undermine this.

Its a very fine line to walk and it’s definitely the part where most writers fail. Not least because again every reader is different. Meyer offered a world where vampires can live amongst us untroubled by anything except sparkly skin, for many of us that was too little consequence as vampirism is essentially about what we lose in humanity versus what we gain in power. For others however it wasn’t until she offered Bella everything and took nothing from her, that suspension of disbelief broke. Yes, it was inconsistent with her own world rules, but it was the lack of consequence that really made eyes roll in disgust.

It is worth looking at trends when thinking about how much this is relevant to your work. Time and time again we see readers respond strongly, favourably, to increased realism. Take Harry Potter, its fantastical, upbeat, fun, about as far from the traditional image of gritty realism as you can get,  yet Rowling never skimped on detail, building a world of immense depth and imagination yet never failing to show how it might slip by us muggles, functioning within, alongside and at times hand in hand with our world. I strongly believe, as a kid who was too often disappointed with other magical offerings, that this was a vital part of her appeal.

Game of Thrones has become synonymous with a new gritty type of fantasy that more closely matches our world. While The Bourne Identity has spawned a multitude of copycats, even forcing a rethink of the entire Bond Franchise at its base level, and Batman has ushered in a new age of realistic anti-superheroes.

Going even further back Tolkien, father of modern fantasy, presented the ultimate in invented mythology and was so intent on grounding it that he kept having to write more volumes to show us how those consequences played out.


Filmmakers often think they can present the fantastical and with all the advances in special effects, make it look so real that no other effort need be put in to maintain suspension of disbelief. Good news is they’re wrong. It might be enough visual spectacle for some, but if you care about good story, and again trends suggest we do, the better effort is put into the smaller, seemingly insignificant details of character action and interaction. The human element is ultimately what most of us will connect with. Carry through their actions, show the consequences within their relationships, their lives, their future actions, and most specifically their emotions. A prime example of a film that failed to do this is World War Z. Great special effects, utterly unbelievable characters. A tragedy given the book was founded on making believable something utterly absurd and was a major part of the reinvigoration of the zombie genre. At the heart of which is realism, and the consumers demand for it.

As we covered in likeable characters, imagination should not be limited there either. Jack Reacher is unlikely to react in the same way as I might in most situations, yet the underpinning emotion may well marry and allow me to connect with him. You can make your characters as physically indestructible as Superman on a sunseekers holiday and it won’t touch a viewers suspension of disbelief as long as we see the emotional cost play out.

One thing I have noticed is that although I hate cliché and overused tropes, there are a few which apparently irk some readers that don’t trouble me and in fact, I have even used. For instance, a character looking in a mirror and describing what they see. But perhaps that’s because I don’t use it to set up a ‘how beautiful am I’ moment, but rather do as I would do in real life. I have them notice what is relevant, however minor or unattractive, in that instance. I’ve used it twice, both times fairly far through the tale because it naturally arose and it felt right. The point is I have drawn from life not from fiction. It’s easy for writers to rely on what they have read to guide them, but this creates clichés in phrasing, in form and even if the act started life as relatively realistic, years of copying has worn it into pure make-believe. Think of it like clones, a copy of a copy of a copy.. For me the approach you take always bleeds through your prose; if you are drawing from the closed circle of fiction it will tell and it will undercut any chance of realism.

As I said its a tricky line and one many just don’t bother themselves about that much. But the point with Unbreakables, isn’t that you must follow them or else, there’s no such thing in fiction and even if there were I’m not going to dictate, however if you choose to heed them they will always benefit your story and the more you chose to, the more they will enrich it.


I need a hero..

Do not feel disappointed, Bonny Tylers epic song can be found at the end 😀

Thought I would kick off my Unbreakables series with one of the more controversial claims. Please read all the way before you foam at the mouth..



Frequently, in the annals of good writing practice (so tempting to go with a malapropism and put anal.. but I restrained 😛 ) you will find likeable frowned upon. Relatable! invariably comes the cry. Give them depth, give them flaws, construct them like jenga towers forever threatening to fall, a literary homunculus crafted in ink and paper and don’t forget to poke a hole in its heel.

Yet, equally one of the most common complaints almost any writer will encounter is this  – your mc is not likeable enough..

Enough to make you spit infinitives..


From the very same people who advise your character doesn’t have to be likeable. If you confront them they will start to backtrack.. I just mean I’m not interested…he still has to be engaging.. I mean I don’t enjoy reading about..

And that’s it in a nutshell. Think of someone you dislike, now imagine immersing yourself in their thoughts, feelings, conversations for the next few days. You wanna pick up that book?

If you want people to invest and engage with your story you need to make them care what happens to your characters, and how the hell are  you going to do that if they don’t like them?

The biggest issue seems to arise from people confusing likeable with nice or pleasant or (and I am still getting my head round this one) noble.. In real life if I describe someone as likeable I might mean nice, the two are considered synonyms, but its most basic definition is ‘easy to like’ and in fiction that’s what you should have at the front of your mind.

There are many ways to achieve this. Hannibal Lector can be a likeable character, Mother Theresa can be utterly unlikeable. Remember in dynasty how much you loved Alexis? Or how naughty biting Spike became more popular than tortured veggie Angel? Who is your favourite in Harry Potter? the ever misbehaving twins? Grumpy Ron? Bossy Hermione?

When you ask the ‘Relatable’ Crew why flaws are so important they will pretty much always come back with, ‘because nobody likes perfection’.

So why not simply use relatable and avoid controversy, if they are essentially the same thing? Because they aren’t. Not always. Remember the Unreakables are not techniques, nor do they restrict style. There are a million viable ways to write a character. You can make them relatable, but is Hannibal Lector relatable? Can we honestly consider both him and Bridget Jones as resulting from a similar approach? Well yes, if you put aside relatable, realistic, credible and simply consider likeable.

I think its important to look at how the effect might be tainted by your approach. If you are simply clinically putting together a realistically flawed individual you run a very high risk of leaving your readers similarly disengaged. Even if they can technically appreciate the skill, the reasoning behind certain behaviours/traits, it often doesn’t feel right to them. (If you are genuinely curious about this its worth looking at reviews on amazon.)

I have this theory – one particularly hard to prove – that how we feel about our work comes out in the prose. If we are disengaged emotionally, if we don’t like our characters there is a high chance that our readers won’t either. Character in particular is an organic thing, a meshing of millions of  tiny little traits and quirks that can be difficult to break down and quantify. Trying to build a person from scratch seems almost impossible, often resulting in a strange holey construction that feels fake. For me, its something I feel my way through. I find the thread that connects me to my characters and use it to climb inside their head. From there I live and breathe each scene as if I were them.  It allows me to discover who they are in the moment rather than apply a set of arbitrary values that must be adhered to.

Sometimes, for some writers, this can result in the IM: The Idealised Me. The IM is a very common construct in literature, and while I am sure your creative writing teacher would frown on the idea, I don’t think agents, publishers or readers have any issue with it. (they may even be unaware of it 🙂 )

Ian Fleming famously said that he never understood why people liked James Bond. He was an arrogant,  murderous, misogynistic bastard. Yet they did, they do, film after film, book after book. Why? Because he never sweated it. Because he had the right line at the right time. Because he got the girls. Because he got them on his own terms.

Because deep down they wanted to be just like him. Even if just for a day, or an hour.

Chances are who you want to be, just for a day or an hour, isn’t that far away from the person an awful lot of readers want to be. Plenty of authors have made a career out of providing the fantasy figure for others to slip into, and it rarely, if done honestly, often without the author’s awareness, results in the Mary Sue Suit. Truth is most of us enjoy the idea of being a bit badass, of being able to misbehave. A quick peek through the most memorable and beloved characters in literature reveals brigands and bitches more often than sweet noble doormats.

And please whatever else don’t believe this recent hype, what I call the Bella Swan Effect. Many claim her blandness is a deliberate attempt to allow the reader to imagine it is them. Rubbish. Her perceived blandness is a direct result of her creator’s ideals clashing with readers ideals. It happens, you’ll never please everyone and the more you are read the more you risk offending.

But an honest character, however idealised, that arises organically from your instincts and desires will stand a much better chance of engaging readers than a clinically constructed one. Especially as one of the greatest issues I see with constructed characters is actually the creation of the Martyr.

Oftentimes erroneously referred to as the victim, the Martyr seems to be particularly popular in our Role Model obsessed world.  Arising out of some desire to preach about morality or inspire unrealistic virtues, perhaps for some there is a sense of obligation, but for many I suspect it has more to do with the curious effect of divorcing the character from themselves in an attempt to be clinically literary, yet being unable to divorce it from their ego.

Martyrs oftentimes don’t have flaws at all, apart from dullness, simply existing to endure unendurable suffering without complaining,  They are bullied for no reason, they have horrible home lives, they are abused, they think they are ugly, they think they aren’t good enough, usually because of the way they have been treated… Many writers don’t seem to realise these are not flaws. They are outside your characters control. Or maybe they do realise but think its a sneaky way of getting round having 😦 ‘ to give their character flaws. They want perfect untouchable creations – creations who are usually vindicated in the final scenes or in (oh lord do I hate this!!) extraneous scenes added purely so other characters can admit how much they are really jealous/in awe of/in love with the mc.

The rise of the geek hero in recent years, while now bordering on overdone to the point of charred, has shown how the IM can be at its best. The geek embodies the writer, all his weaknesses and feelings of inadequacy but also his hopes and aspirations, and ultimately finds a way to celebrate him as he is while still pushing him to be more. It can also step out of the realm of pure wish fulfilment and make a valid social commentary , or perhaps more accurately as it has become such a staple across all fiction mediums, a cultural commentary.

The key is be yourself, then add the frills.  The best IM’s don’t rewrite us, they validate us. The klutz, who is loveable instead of a graceless idiot.. the grumpy bastard with a heart of gold.. Most of us don’t want to be someone else, we just want to be appreciated for who we are warts and all. What we don’t want is to be reduced to a clinical study, a stereotype, a label. A person is more than a collection of attributes and if you approach your character as such you can be sure the one thing you won’t end up with is a person.

And now.. Bonnie! Johnny Five! Legend..