We Need to Talk About Show: Part Five

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.

Show isn’t

  • 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

Show is

  • 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..





We Need to Talk About Show Don’t Tell: Part Four

I won’t lie. There could be a part five. In all honesty there could easily be a part ten. I do so love show. If I were the evil dictator type I’d go on a rampage re-writing all books into Show, stomping across Social Media like a Troll of Unusual Size, terrorizing writers sites, sending newbies scampering back to their tear soaked diaries..

But i’m not… Not. Definitely not. Yet. Instead i’ll quietly waffle away here to myself and hope, pray maybe, that some might get it too and jump on board the Show Boat. (its very similar to the Love Boat but with none of these.. shorts not moustaches.


In this part beyond making bad jokes, I want to go as far back as I can to the origins of Show. Beyond even Hemingway to perhaps what was a seminal influence on his thinking.


The movie industry was to Hemingway’s generation what I imagine the internet is to mine. We existed in the world ‘before’, we witnessed its birth, its growing pains, and, vitally, felt the transformative effect of its development.

As Hemingway and his entire ‘lost generation’ would have witnessed, it was powerful. A new art for a new world. One of the most famous examples of what were termed ‘actuality films’ is The Arrival of a Train’, which is as scintillating as it sounds. Yet to its 19th century  audience it was so real they –  we are told by urban myth – ran screaming from the cinema, sure they were about to be flattened by the oncoming steamer.

(you are) working in the universal language that had been predicted in the Bible, which was to make all men brothers because they would understand each other. This could end wars and bring about the millennium ~ D.W. Griffiths

For men who had actually witnessed wars, too many crammed into too short a time, there now existed not just the technology but the idea that its existence had wrought, the ability to show others what they had endured; rather than parsing through the dictionary seeking out means to explain or translate they could let the images and actions speak for themselves.

Hemingway referenced a quote from Henry James, which held that words had been rendered useless by the war, both directly and many times indirectly, as he held that the words had ‘always embarrassed him’ and he found them inadequate next to the ‘concrete thing’. The enduring legacy of his work seems to be the sense of less; that only through reduction can we find truth.

One finds it is in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as it is to endures one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened; they have deteriorated like motor car tires… we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms.. ~ Henry James

There is in that the sense that our very medium as writers is inadequate, an old art for a dying world.  While film by its very nature could not fail to be relevant – a camera a window on the world; a living embodiment of Show. Can ‘She faked it’, ever encompass this?

Can ‘he had white face paint and lipstick smeared blood red over his mouth’ horrify like this?

The greater question we might ask today, is does any effect evoked owe more to what we have seen on film than the writer’s skill? Because like Hemingway we’ve already witnessed the horrors with our own eyes. It’s a common argument that older books had to give painstaking detail to their worlds because people had no visual references to draw from and help shape their imaginations. While nowadays we have seen so many images, do we need much more than a cursory mention of sleek steel to see a spaceship in our minds eye?

The emphasis time and time again returns to the visual. Film is a visual medium. And so by many interpretations is show.

Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms ~ Alfred Hitchcock

Early film was constrained in terms of sound. Words weren’t dismissed by choice, but by necessity and as such the early pioneers were very much driven by the images they could create. In the age of FX it doesn’t seem as though anything has changed.  However, oddly, if you have studied film even as a passing interest there are many techniques, such as the montage sequence, or the flashback, where the emphasis is on the visual, yet they are regarded as the mark of a hack. While techniques such as narration are  considered acceptable and frequently crop up in arthouse and award winning works, such as the Opposite of Sex or Notes on A Scandal.

Film hasn’t rendered words obsolete anymore than art or theatre did.  More significantly, it hasn’t rendered tell obsolete.

I came across an interesting example in my screenwriting days.

A married couple are in a lift. The doors open. Another woman enters. The man takes of his hat.

What does that show us?

My instinct was he was old and this was an older generations manners at play. The answer apparently is that the marriage is stale. Which is still a reflection of his manners, only the emphasis there was that he didn’t show the same respect to his wife. For my mind, you never treat your nearest and dearest the same as strangers, so it seemed to reflect only his age and general character, rather than the state of his marriage.

In film we can craft with images. Facial expressions, body language, physical appearance, can all show. This…

couple    +   jess

can become this..

The admonition inherent in the story however didn’t cover any of the above, it was addressed only to the screenwriter, not the director or actor or editor. A screenwriter works under strict prohibitions not to stray from dialogue or action and to keep word count to a minimum, the more white space the better. He cannot depict emotional reactions, inner motivations or thoughts, and descriptions are mostly covered by slug lines, comprising of whether its an interior or exterior shot, what time of day it is and where we are eg Bathroom. Mary’s House. There seems always this hard wired notion that only words can tell.

The language of film may be newer but the clichés are being built up with the rapidity that only the formulaic format of a risk averse studio system driven by the bottom line could finance and the effect is exactly the same as it is in the written word. Tell.

Hitchcock complained that too many films were ‘simply photographs of people talking’. He isn’t wrong, although I would hold it is what is said and how its is said, not that something is said at all, that creates that strange static quality. Dialogue is often the best part and there is very good reason silent films went the way of the Dodo in less time than it takes to make a Peter Jackson movie. Take one of my favourite books and the film adapted from it, The Princess Bride, and my favourite scene

There is so much that is going on here that a lesser writer might have tried to explain, yet everything we need was in those few lines. Everything the character was, everything that drove him, his very blood flowed to its rhythm, as we literally see it reanimate his (nearly) dead body.

One of the reasons that both flashbacks and montage sequences are so derided is that they been overused as classic devices of tell. They take the viewer out of the moment, the natural flow of the story, and function like a hammer to make sure they know exactly what is going on and why.

The characters are blissfully happy, look at them laughing, their shiny shiny teeth.. curling up in front of the log fires (who has all these log fires? and can we all go round there?)

The villain is tormented by his prostitute mothers abusive clients as she lies strung out on coke..

In most cases the very things, characters that they reveal are clichés. Expectations are set up to be met in Hollywood, not subverted. Narration of course does exactly the same thing. Notes on a Scandal was a potentially great film ruined by the fact that Judi Dench wouldn’t shut up. It created, through the limited POV taken from the book,  a  very uneven effect, as we were directly privy to things the narrator hadn’t seen yet weren’t allowed to observe them without hearing her opinion on them.  The first rule in adapting any literary work into a screenplay is ‘throw the book out the window’. I don’t know who said it and google is just trying to sell me stuff, so if you haven’t heard it just trust me, everyone else has.

This is why I am cautious when it comes to comparing writing practice with film techniques and that goes double for applying show. Although I was strongly visual when it came to screenwriting, always enjoying the unique form it allowed, I never considered it to be innately show, anymore than my dialogue or script. Too many interpret show as simply a visual form of explaining and lump dialogue, purely because of its link to film, in with this. Which results in this. This is not good.

Show isn’t visuals. What gave, and gives, film its unique power is its capacity to make us feel as if we are actually there. I have always preferred Hemingway’s word, ‘the concrete’. Some put the emphasis on our senses. Given we are visual creatures, that this is the primary means most of us experience our world, they will always play a big part and it can seem as if film has an automatic head start. But they haven’t made books obsolete. Just ask JK. And any reader would tell you that often a book is far more real and intense than a film. It is simply that whatever medium you choose there is a lot more to it than spewing out the first few words that come into your head or pointing a camera at a train. Show is intimately embedded in the craft of storytelling. Which is why its far too complex to be summed up in anything less than a five part series.. Sorry.. I’ll definitely be finished at five though. Definitely…

We Need to Talk About Show Don’t Tell: Part 3


Perhaps the most commonly cited myth surrounding Show Don’t Tell is the belief that it automatically requires more words. Returning to Wiki’s entry, it cites two well known writers both of whom claim the advice should be followed judiciously, for the reason that to do otherwise would affect the pace, flow and word count adversely.

Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. ~ James Scott Bell

This returns us very definitively to the notion that show don’t tell is a sentence level technique, not an effect, and a very limited one at that. The most common advice will offer up admonitions that dictate how you should approach and construct your scenes on a basic,  syntactic level,  much as Chuck Palanuik advises:

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use….In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling ~ Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs

It isn’t that I would disagree with his overall aim. Adding sensory detail can enrich any text and even, I agree (which I’m sure he is relieved to know) stand in  effectively for some sentences that might well be filtered through a ‘thought verb’ and labelled tell. Its that his examples return us to the notion of expansion being the inevitable result of Show.

Instead of saying: Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.” ~ Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs

These are tricks which can be handy to learn, but where, when, and how  you apply them to your work, or even whether you apply them at all, is entirely up to you, the author. They may make something as nebulous as Show Don’t Tell can feel, much easier to grasp, but they’re nothing more than a small part of a much larger concept and if, as seems to be the case, this is where understanding ends, are potentially very limiting, especially if they involve banning a class of words. A ban on anything, however temporary, can lodge in a writer’s head like a splinter from the Snow Queen’s mirror. And if you don’t get that reference, read the book! My all time favourite fairy tale.

In short, there are no short cuts. But you can still cut your writing short.

not happy

To return to Hemingway, there is an oft cited, erroneously apparently, anecdote that when challenged to tell a story in six words he replied:

For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

Just a fact, told simply, but its what is implied, everything our mind can make of all that has – and all that hasn’t  – been said, that gives it its power. Show is about what you choose to give the reader. And sadly even here, it gets muddled. And muddled by the notion of expansion, adding more and more details, more and more words. One blog article advises specific details as the key to understanding Show. By the end of his first reworking of the paragraph below, he has used an extra 109 words – nearly triple what he started with and we haven’t got even half way through the story.

They went to New York to see Cats. They both enjoyed it very much. When they tried to go home, their flight was delayed because of the snow so they stayed another night and decided to see the musical again.

But much more importantly has he achieved what he set out to do?

Writing that shows is so much more interesting than writing that tells that it’s worth doing the work ~ J. Bunting

Lets see..

Tanya and James flew to New York city in a 747.

  • Do we care about what type of plane they flew in?

They got their bags, took a taxi to their hotel, and checked into their rooms. “I can’t wait to see the show,” Tanya said. “You’re going to love it.”

James shook his head. “I don’t get it. It’s about Cats who sing and dance? Sounds sorta dumb.”

Tanya smiled, “Just trust me.”

  •  Is this an interesting interplay? Are we now fascinated by how he will react to Cats? Or has he just over-explained, shown us the ‘iceberg’?

Their hotel was just a few blocks from the Foxwoods Theater so they walked. He had never seen buildings so tall or so many people walking on the street.

  • Am I the only one rolling my eyes? Is he five? Am I?

When they got to the theater, Tanya noticed his eyes were a little wider, his mouth a little slacker.

  • I believe this is now an advert for how to spot the signs of stroke.

The foyer was covered in gold and white marble, with hundreds of people milling around in gowns and beautiful suits.

  • I appreciate fine tailoring as much as the next girl but really? Beautiful suits?

Okay, got a little sidetracked there, I might use beautiful suits, I’m coming round to it. It might suggest a latent desire to dress men for a living.

He has extended our knowledge, the length of the passage and our boredom threshold (if you got to the end), but hasn’t transformed this into something more alive, more vivid or interesting. And apart from shifting into ‘real time’ pace wise hasn’t demonstrated show at work. This shift from overview to blow by blow enactment is where the word count will almost inevitably go up. It can definitely be considered a part of show and its one I personally am fond of, however it is also such a common feature of most modern novels that it isn’t really where most writers are tripping up.

What if we remain in overview? The form most define as tell. If we can master and understand show in this form, perhaps we can master it fully. Here’s my rewrite.

So Tanya drags James to New York to see Cats. He’s threatening to trade in the tickets for the Knicks at Madison Square Gardens. Then a freak storm grounds their plane home and what do they end up doing? Seeing Cats again..

I really am loath to use interesting since this is possibly the dullest tale I’ve ever read, but its at least a step in the direction.  And only 2 words more than the original. I could probably cut it if I wanted, but the point is made. It’s not add more, if all you are adding is more of the same.

falling asleep

Perhaps the issue is simply that here the writer was attempting to answer ‘some of those questions’, when what he should have been doing was trying to raise more questions in the readers mind. I say more.. the only question I have is why would I be interested in this. And you would be surprised how much fiction is constructed in exactly the same way with exactly the same effect.

In my version Tanya is forcing James to do something he doesn’t want to do. Conflict isn’t show, its story, something the writer seemed to realise when he started to embellish his version. What is show is how you realise it, not simply in a block of explanation, but allowing it to seep naturally through your narrative. Simply adding ‘drag‘ was all that was required here.

‘He’s threatening to trade in the tickets for the Knicks at Madison Square Gardens’.  This sentence is where show really kicks in, and as the blogger first suggested with the inclusion of specific details. His intentions give us a sense of their relationship, his character and put us in New York – the gardens, the knicks,.. we all know those from movies if not real life – and it creates a juxtaposition with the first sentence, Tanya’s plans. We’re now primed to see how it resolves. Primed may be overstating it – it’s still the world’s dullest story.

Then a freak storm grounds their plane and what do they end up doing?’ This is colloquial and chatty, inviting the reader in. The first was stilted and blocked. It was quite clearly a carefully constructed series of events. This is a guy talking to you about his mates. Voice is never absent, not even if you try and mimic Hemingway’s extreme remove, but it can be literally everything else, sweet, angry, polite, robotic, dull. It’s a powerful tool to master and its why anytime you hear anyone say that prose is somehow subject to different rules to dialogue you should remember the adage

Its all somebody talking

‘Seeing Cats again..’ And the point of the story is trusted to the reader to interpret. He freaking loved it. Tanya always gets her way. This is why Cats is in its millionth year on Broadway, get your discount tickets here…

He wasn’t wrong in his base statement. Specificity is at the heart of show, he simply didn’t show us how to apply it or how it works. Burying the reader under detail, as wiki held, is unnecessary and will likely only decrease interest. Rather it’s a removal of the generic – ie went to, replaced by drag.. delayed by snow to freak storm.. and insertion of the particular. And in fiction that means personal, relevant, of the character/story/place. Unless your character was an autistic plane spotter the number of the plane wasn’t going to add anything; the voice, the language you choose, the tone, will.

And as Hemingway held, what you don’t say can be as vital to the effect as what you do. Maybe more. Consider the original and what I didn’t tell you in my version.

They both enjoyed it very much….. and decided to see the musical again.

Tell isn’t a form of sentence, or a number of words, it isn’t action, or dialogue, or description, its when the author leaves nothing unsaid – BUT – and this is the important bit – its when the author leaves nothing unsaid in what he has said. Tell shuts the reader out and that’s surely the one thing you definitely don’t want at any point in your story. Consider this added detail:

They got their bags, took a taxi to their hotel, and checked into their rooms.

What if instead he had given us:

Tanya paid the taxi while James fumbled about with their bags, ignoring the eager porter.

We’re still at the same place, doing the same things, still working with the same number of words, but now we have some idea of the people involved. I haven’t said James is cheap. I haven’t said Tanya is the breadwinner, I haven’t said how either feel about it, yet isn’t all of that and more in your head the minute you read the above words? In fact if you really are struggling with show take the above sentence and keeping the same basic details – taxi to hotel, check in – and roughly the same amount of words, rework it to create as many different tones, characters, inferences as you can.


We Need to Talk About Show Don’t Tell: Part Two


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.



We Need to Talk About…

*declares pompously* Show don’t tell

Again? I hear ya..

Its an obsession. Much like the endless throw away comments about runaway adverbs ruining a piece  or dialogue tags  being lazy writing.. (how does one determine lazy writing? is it like sloppy handwriting?) its becoming such a cliché in writing circles that its almost losing its power to irritate. I’d like to reignite that power because for a cliché everyone is doing a remarkable job of completely not getting it. Language is a nebulous flexible slinky-like creature in my eyes and I don’t like to close down definitions as nuance can expand and enrich so much, and I fully acknowledge that my understanding is not some universal Truth all must adhere to, however what I do run into time and time again suggests something that is bordering on damaging. We either need to redefine it or chuck it out as useless, much like the advice on adverbs.


Or maybe we just need to learn what it meant in the first place. Writing is that odd bastard that everyone thinks they can take a swing at but no one bothers to learn. Our teachers are ourselves, our peers, published, un-published and self published. We all start out with a certain amount of assurance, not in our ability to write necessarily, but our ability to judge. Everyone – writer or simply reader – has thought, I could do  it better than that. Reality quickly teaches most of us and for those outliers the internet is all too ready to hammer it  – brutally – home.  It can then be quite easy to start to second guess yourself and once those rejections start flowing to feel as though you can’t – shouldn’t  – trust your own judgement at all.

Its part of the learning curve of every writer to eventually make a full circle and return to that place of assurance  – or maybe 350 degrees, a little self doubt might be useful, or at least that’s what I tell myself. The danger comes when we think the answer is to build a false floor out of easy and accepted ‘rules’ touted by a majority of other writers. It can seem like we’ve returned to a place of trust but in reality all we’ve done is abdicate the responsibility of making a decision and with it – we think – avoided any chance of ridicule. Nothing is quite as terrifying as a bunch of sneering writers, and they fester in the interwebs,  breeding in amazon and goodreads like indestructible MSRA..


That’s what my Common Advice for Writers series is all about. Trying to dig past all the false prophets and layers of misunderstandings and see where the original advice sprung from and what, if any, merit it had. Its always seemed to me that everything is worth questioning.

Some – a lot really – is simply too well worn into the cultural consciousness to trace to its origins, or even its more recent reincarnation. Adverbial caution didn’t originate with either King or even Leonard but they are responsible for its recent dissemination and popularity. Show don’t tell is even trickier to pin down.

In his oh so popular Ten Rules for Writing, Leonard prefaces his rules with the disclaimer..

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story.

And a quick google will show you how widely dispersed these rules have been. (If you are interested in the original article, go here.) Yet he offers no real explanation of what this means to him; its not listed as one of his rules but rather as a guiding principle which drives all the choices he makes and techniques he employs. This, for me, is  at the heart of the common misconceptions of show: the notion that it can be distilled into one technique, reduced to one element of story or even one class of words. Show is an effect. And nothing, regardless of how I feel about the rest of his rules, sums that up more than Leonards One  Rule to rule them all..

If it sounds like writing I rewrite it.

But  we all have to learn. And while his rules are interesting, they aren’t lessons. They can writer to writer, writer to reader, give an interesting insight into his thinking,  how he achieves his art ( he might have called it entertainment) and what he is striving for. What they cannot do is teach, professor to student, how you might achieve your art – you might call it entertainment. I do.

So who is teaching?  And what are they teaching?

because I am ridiculously obsessed with this particular effect, because I believe that it won’t break your voice but make your story, I thought I would do another short series within a series and look  at a few common sources and explanations of Show.

As always I would love to think it has helped especially as if I can help with anything I would always hope it would be with this, but mostly i’m just hoping its interesting.