Show, Don’t Tell. (Take the long road home.)
Show, don’t tell. Most writers are aware of the axiom, and many are aware of the literology behind it. Yet some of us continue to persist in taking shortcuts that scrape the passion off our creative intentions.
However, since the adage is bandied about so often, it’s not always easy to glimpse that archetypal forest through the proverbial trees. Perhaps the time has come to dissect the meaning of the phrase, splatter some metaphoric blood, and see what makes the damn thing tick.
A writer I know once elucidated, rather ineloquently; “It means make love to me with your prose; don’t just fuck me with words.”
Or, as Wikipedia states: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a technique often employed…to enable the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition and summarization.
Wikipedia further states: Author Chuck Palahniuk goes as far as recommending a ban of what he calls ‘thought verbs’: (“Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires…”) favoring instead the use of specific sensory details: “Action, Smell, Taste, Sound, and Feeling.”
I’m quoting from Wikipedia because I happen to believe Mr. Palahniuk’s essay is a particularly brilliant perception, profound and intelligent—and rather than read my attempt to paraphrase him, you can read his words here.
Simply stated, some writers are so busy telling us a bare-bones story1 that they forget to show us the underlying excitement: John came home. He went upstairs. He found his wife lying in a pool of blood. John ran screaming out the door, and then he called the police. An hour later, an old sergeant named O’Malley said; “It looks like murder, Mr. Smith. And you’re the prime suspect.”
That’s descriptive, sure—but it’s also a “shopping list” of chronological events. We might see John, but we certainly don’t know John. But by showing, not telling, the writer is breaking open John’s soul, and allowing us a long, honest, revealing peek inside. (We can know John Smith’s personality, even if we don’t know whether or not John murdered his wife. That John isn’t telling the reader isn’t a stylistic problem…it’s suspense.)
I do equate showing with Active Voice and telling with Passive Voice. Not that sensory details and voice structure are synonymous, but they are compatible. I usually find that a writer plugged into the showing/not telling psychology is likely more aware of the importance of exciting, passionate writing. To me, a good novel is one that continually imparts basic grammar and story-telling mechanics (Subject-Verb-Object)2 with a powerful, dramatic voice.
I consider the above-mentioned exposition and summarization to be lazy writing. Or at least tired writing. (Certain stylistic machinations can effectively work, if properly orchestrated.) But let’s face it, even Hemingway used active voice only marginally—imho—and often slipped into a dispassionate “telling”. Would Hemingway be published today? Good question.
Because if you find yourself constantly beginning sentences with: “It was…” or “He was…” or “They were…” you’re pretty much writing in a passive, superficial voice that most readers will discover devoid of feeling. I guarantee that 9 times from 10, a writer can easily find a more passionate resonance. Consider: John was late for work.
With little effort, one can concoct a variety of active, far more visual solutions:
The alarm bell’s shrill scream sliced through John’s sleeping brain like a hot knife.
John hated mornings. He hated the sunlight playing peek-a-boo through his blinds, tormenting his eyelids with brain-numbing brightness.
John hazily recalled having closed Wiley’s Tavern the previous night with a final whiskey sour, and grinding out his last cigarette an hour later. He dreaded the encroaching dawn with a mental anguish that bordered on physical pain.
Thus, even the ordinary can become an unexpected and pleasurable experience for the reader. Plots are finite. Imagination is not.
Passion should be—must be—a staple constant in your novel. If you find yourself writing dispassionately, ask yourself whether the content belongs in your book. Often, you’ll discover the material extraneous, or redundant, or not fully refined, and your brain’s sending you signals. If your brain doesn’t want to be here… a reader probably won’t want to be either.
Writing is passion. If you don’t consider a novel as you would a jealous lover with expensive tastes—one requiring the diligence, the selflessness, the patience and the isolation (from all your other friends)—think again. And if you’re not ready for the commitment, perhaps its time to find a new lover.1 Understand that the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ axiom isn’t a license to kill. Numbing a reader’s senses with unchecked imaginative spewing isn’t going to play either. So stay away from this sort of showboat overload: The fiery explosion of daybreak shattered the tranquility of John’s repose, scattering his thoughts into a billion imprecise fragments that danced in tiny pirouettes throughout his subconscious mind as might a shower of meteors bursting toward far-off galaxies on their disparate journeys through the harsh, relenting silence of space, never again to know the love of a good woman or the taste of a good beer.
Because simple, coherent prose is the yin to creativity’s yang. So, yes—free the reader’s senses to run wild, but do so in basic, uncomplicated sentence structure: Cogent thoughts, simply told, in precise chronology.
2 Subject + Verb + Object (SVO); otherwise known as Active voice. Conversely, OVS is often viewed as a more passive voice. Consider—once again—the Jumping Cow Rule:
Active: The cow jumped over the moon. (SVO)
Passive: The moon was jumped over by the cow. (OVS)
Bad passive: It was the moon that was jumped over by the cow. (O,OVS)
‘It’ being an abstract representation of the object (and also a repetition of that object): Basically a clunky sentence structure… although the rare exception exists when you might find this phraseology perfect for your needs. If so, by all means use it:
“It was beauty that killed the beast.” (Fictional Carl Denim in King King.) And how could that line have been spoken any other way?
Rules can be broken…but sparingly, please.