Show, don’t tell

Every student in every class I’ve taught could tell you what ‘show, don’t tell‘ means. This is because it is one of the most fundamental lessons in writing. In order for your audience to feel something, they have to believe what you’ve written, be able to create a mental image of it and connect with it.

Consider any great fiction book you’ve ever read. I’m going to use J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as an example. The author’s of these books do not simply tell you that a character was pretty or angry. They show you how the character looks, what they are doing, and what they are saying, and the you, the reader, decide that they are pretty or angry or excited.

Have a read of this passage from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf asks Bilbo to leave the ring for Frodo:

“… Now it comes to it, I don’t like parting with it at all, I may say. And I don’t really see why I should. Why do you want me to?” he asked, and a curious change came over his voice. It was sharp with suspicion and annoyance. “You are always badgering me about my ring; but you have never bothered me about the other things that I got on my journey”…Bilbo flushed, and there was an angry light in his eyes. His kindly face grew hard… “And what business is it of yours, anyway, to know what I do with my own things? It is my own. I found it. It came to me.”

J.R.Tolkein

In the passage above you can feel Bilbo becoming more and more unsettled. The dialogue between Bilbo and Gandalf becomes more fraught, and by the end Bilbo is beside himself at the notion of parting with the ring. From this short paragraph we begin to suspect that there is more to the ring than simply being a piece of jewellery (providing you’ve not read The Hobbit!) The sudden change in Bilbo’s demeanour with Gandalf, and his words, show us there is a deeper mystery here.

Practising ‘show, don’t tell’ yourself, and modelling it for your students, is a critical element in order for you, and them, to connect authentically to the audience. If we only ‘tell‘ our audience what is happening our story becomes boring and our audience will pop our book down and move on to something else.

Imagine what Tolkien’s writing had been like without the ‘show’.

Gandalf asked Bilbo to place the ring on the mantlepiece. Bilbo didn’t want to because he really liked the ring. He got cross at Gandalf for asking him to give it up and told him to stop meddling in his business.

The same basic information is provided to the reader, but the original allows us to see the characters and feel them, where as the other, well, it’s just boring and one dimensional.

It’s not that we need to get rid of the ‘tell’ altogether. It’s very necessary to tell our readers some things, of course. Even in the above example Tolkien tells us that Bilbo’s voice had become ‘sharp with suspicion and annoyance.’ What we are trying to do is make sure we are ‘showing’ enough to the reader to allow for that mental image to form. To allow them to connect with the emotions of your characters, or the importance of a setting.

In the writing course I am participating in at the moment we had an exercise to write for 8 minutes using the prompt ‘Standing in the rain…’ We were to focus specifically on developing details of our character in order to evoke emotion in the reader. We needed to try to use all of our senses. Here’s what I wrote:

Where had all these people appeared from? Robert glanced around the tram stop to find himself completely hemmed in. He could see the tram coming, and he’d been here first. Longest! He was getting on this tram by hook or by crook.

‘Urgh,’ Robert said out loud as a man pushed past him inhaling a tuna sandwich. The smell was so strong, and there were so many people around, he felt like he was trapped with the sandwich rammed up his nose. He tried breathing through his mouth but that just made him notice how fuzzy his tongue felt. He’d had way too many coffees today.

The tram clattered to a halt and the wave of Johnny-come-lately’s pushed forward. No matter how much he wanted to, Robert could not bring himself to stick his elbows out and force his way on as others were doing. Instead he watched as all but three travellers squished themselves in. Most avoided his gaze as the doors closed, which he thought was prudent.

As the tram pulled away the first raindrop fell. Robert looked up just as the sky opened. He stood, shoulders slumped, allowing the chill of the rain to penetrate his Target business shirt. It rolled right off his Target pants. Whatever they were made of they did not absorb water. Finally he shuffled backwards to shelter undercover with some poor woman and fucking tuna guy.

K. Portier

In this piece I was trying to convey a sense of injustice as well as defeat. But at no point did I use either of those words. I wanted Robert’s actions and thoughts to tell that story.

‘Show, don’t tell’, like everything else about writing, needs practise. By noticing little details in the world and recording them in your writer’s notebook, you will find you have an endless supply of interesting details that will help bring your stories to life. You can also try little prompts like this one, and practise showing your characters feelings through their actions and interactions.

I hope you have a wonderful day and plenty of tea to keep your creative juices flowing! See you soon xx

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