One of the most perplexing, vexing and generally pain in the ass phrases any aspiring writer hears from other (usually more successful and – let’s be honest – smug) writers is “show, don’t tell.”
Really, as if writers didn’t have enough problems with making rent, working the day job and dealing with friends, family and spouses who don’t really believe that you’ve been working on the book you casually (and constantly) tell them about, here comes another god forsaken “real” writer with this tired, worn-out old piece of advice that is rarely followed by a decent explanation.
And that’s the biggest part of the problem – the advice is legit, but those who dish it out rarely stop to elaborate on what the hell it means. Despite what some think, it’s not self-explanatory. Show what? Don’t tell what? What’s the difference between showing and telling? And while we’re at it, why is the chick who wrote those Twilight books rolling around naked in her own money while I’m still working as a barista and eating ramen noodles for three meals a day?
Well, some questions we might never know the answer to, but I can tell you this: There is a decent answer to the question of “What the hell do you mean by ‘Show, don’t tell’?”
And it is this: Rather than indulging in long, drawn out bits of exposition to reveal something about a character, a place or a situation, instead simply allow the details to reveal themselves in the story or – even better – bits of dialogue, relying on your reader’s imagination to fill in details.
You want some great examples? Here’s the shortest I can think of, by none other than Ernest Hemingway: “For sale. Baby Shoes. Never used.”
Absolute friggin’ tragedy, sorrow and desolation wrapped up in what could very well be the text for a six-word classified ad. That is some righteous show, don’t tell, kids, and even if Uncle Ernest never wrote another word after tossing those six out there, we’d still be talking about them today.
Another great place to find excellent examples of show, don’t tell is in pop songs. Why? Well, you’ve got three and a half minutes to tell a story or elucidate on a bit of philosophy. Think it’s easy knocking out even a bad pop song? Go ahead and try it. Chances are you’ll be pulling out your hair by the time you’re on your third ream of paper.
Driving around the other day, I was listening to the radio and realized Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” would fit very nicely into this discussion simply because it’s an exceptionally short song – three main verses, a bridge and chorus in about two minutes and 50 seconds – that tell us quite a lot about the its main character . It’s essentially an entire Elmore Leonard novel in the time it might take you to shave or do your make-up.
(The punks at YouTube cut off the embedding for this, but you can link to it below. I highly recommend it.)
If you tried to convey all this information – that there’s a guy who got in over his head with spies and a Cuban casino, and is now appealing to his father for assistance both legal and illegal in getting out from under his debt, eventually escaping to Honduras until things cool off – in a linear, expository fashion … well, you’d have the sentence I just wrote and it wouldn’t make a very good song, now. would it?
Consider what we know about this guy. First, he’s a rake. “I went home with a waitress” tells us one thing, but throw in “the way I always do,” and we have a wide open window into this guy’s libido and man-whore tendencies. Second, he’s in Havana, where Americans aren’t legally supposed to be, telling us he lives just outside the normal parameters of the law. Third, he’s a gambler willing to roll the dice on long odds, confirming the lawless assumption. Fourth, he’s probably a douchebag trust fund kid who’s putting his family money on the line and expects his father to extricate him through any means necessary – thus the title – every time he does something stupid.
Honestly, entire film series have been predicated on less information than the lyrics in this song. Just from a few lines, Zevon has drawn an exceptionally rich character that could easily carry a Steven Soderbergh, “Oceans 11”-style trilogy.
The key here is that Zevon hasn’t started with some lame “Once Upon a Time” format like many prose writers do – he jumps right in. If Zevon hadn’t already used it, this first line would make a great opening to a short story. Few songwriters have the luxury of extensive exposition over thousands of words, so to avoid the temptation to ramble on with it yourself. Act as if you have no time to get things clear.
Instead of saying, “It was cold,” have your character react to the cold in a concise fashion that might reveal something about him or her at the same time. Instead of going on in the third person about how your character was fired from her job, have her allude to it in her dialogue, with the other characters responding accordingly. Better yet, if your story is set in winter in New York City, we’ll know it’s cold, so there’s no need to even tell us, unless the character is somehow unreasonably cold thanks to poverty, a mugging, a specific costume or other unusual circumstances.
In closing let me give you a few pop culture references that keep me from telling rather than showing. The first is the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers movies. As Austin’s boss, he’s there to do just what his name implies – give us exposition to move the plot forward. It’s an age old device employed in almost all the James Bond movies (which the Powers series so nicely mocks), usually in the person of M, Bond’s boss.
All I have to do is remember how ridiculous Basil’s clunky film moments are, and I’m dissuaded from doing the same thing in my own stories.
The other reference that keeps me on track is the concept of monologuing, as described in the Pixar film The Incredibles. It’s an inside superhero joke shared early in the movie and later mentioned by arch villian Syndrome, in which a bad guy so enamored with his own evil scheme rambles on to the main character, describing every detail of the plan up to that point. If you ever – EVER – find yourself monologuing, step back and find a new way to say what you’re trying to say.