January 3, 2023
by Tim Storm
Show, don’t tell. It’s a piece of writing advice that is nearly ubiquitous, especially among Western creative writing instruction. I maintain that 1) it’s a good skill to practice and master, 2) it’s not the only path to effective writing, 3) there are, in fact, some potential pitfalls to it, and 4) with its ubiquity comes an occasional lack of clarity about what the concept even means.
So I’d like to offer some disambiguation here.
What’s at the root of showing?
Readers like to be immersed in a piece of writing. And one method for achieving that immersion is to mimic real-life experience by presenting stimuli without an assessment of what those stimuli mean.
That’s how things are in our daily existence. We witness a woman watch a shirtless man jog past and then we see her eyes go wide as she clearly mouths, “Wow!” We see a couple in the front seats of a car shouting at each other and gesticulating with furrowed brows. We see a man on a park bench smiling as he watches a toddler place her hands over her eyes and then pull her hands away quickly and giggle.
Humans are social creatures. We have mirror neurons, which enable us—indeed, even compel us—to see situations like the ones above and guess at what people are feeling.
I often say that readers want to do a certain kind of mental work. They want the chance to solve mysteries. They want to be proud of their own cleverness when they piece together 2+2. They want to speculate about character motivations and feelings. They want to co-create the story with their own imaginations.
And that’s what showing is. It’s about the writer stepping back from their own impulse to make sense of things and letting the reader do that work. It allows for immersion and inference; those two concepts are at the heart of showing.
Most writers want to be good at such a skill.
What is being shown exactly?
This is an important point. Essentially, showing is about rendering the abstract concrete and specific.
Let’s back up a little. What is abstraction? Well, we might use abstractions to label, among other things,
- a person’s emotions (she was angry)
- their motives (he wanted revenge)
- the qualities of a person (he was attractive)
- the qualities of a place (the desert was cold at night)
- actions (they battled viciously for three days but lost)
- theme (the American dream is an unattainable fantasy)
But showing pushes us to depict specifics that will allow the reader to infer such abstraction. Chekhov is often credited with “inventing” the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and he provides a pretty good example of what is meant by depicting specifics that allow the reader to infer: “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.”
Can’t you just write “moonlit night” on occasion?
Of course. One type of showing is about the qualities or attributes of a person, place, or thing. This tends to be more surface-level stuff, arising from sensory detail. But another type is deeper and has to do with feeling, emotion, meaning.
Fairy tales are famously shy on the level of specificity that Chekhov calls for, but that’s not a failing. Through their often-abstract, often-summarized narratives, fairy tales juxtapose strange occurences that get us doing a different kind of reader work than visualizing a place or a person.
A girl arrives at her grandmother’s house and finds a strange simulacrum of her grandmother in bed—a wolf, it turns out, who wants to prey upon the girl but does not use the much more effective method of ambushing the girl in the forest and going straight for the throat. What’s that all about? The reader has to do the work.
So something is still shown. It’s just that the shown abstraction is on a different level.
What do people mean by “Show, Don’t Tell”?
My name is TD Storm. I live in Madison, Wisconsin with my wife and two children (both of whom are currently running around the house shouting, “Dingo encounter!”).
I’ve taught writing and literature since 1999, both at the high school and post-secondary levels. I currently teach at the University of Wisconsin. My teaching style works for most people who give me a chance–though I admit that I thrive on face-to-face interaction, where I have better eye contact and smile more. As I’ve moved to more online instruction in recent years, however, I’ve found some ways to make it work well (video conferencing, for instance).
I write short stories and essays, with recent work at Literary Hub and Copper Nickel. I’ve been a finalist in several short story contests, and I won the Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award.
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