Most writers have heard the old creative writing rule “Show, Don’t Tell.” There are variations on it, of course, such as “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell)” and “Tell Less, Show More.”
In general terms, the idea is that instead of telling the reader things–I am happy or she was sad–try showing the reader–I jump smiling into the air or she curled, weeping, into a ball. Those of us who have taken creative writing classes or read writing how-to books or listened closely at a master’s knee have heard this admonition often enough that we may feel like there’s no need to repeat it.
However, I think “Show, Don’t Tell” is important enough that it can’t hurt for us to be reminded of it every now and then.
Also, I am often surprised at how many of my students haven’t heard “Show, Don’t Tell” or who have heard it but don’t get it. There comes a time in each semester when I have to explain the difference between showing and telling.
Usually, this can be taken care of with a simple demonstration.
“I am happy,” I say. “That is telling.”
Then I jump up and down, hooting and pumping my fists in the air. “And that is showing.”
They all smile and nod. They get it! I am a proud teacher.
Sometimes I give them a print-out of this fine essay by Robert J. Sawyer.
Essays like Sawyer’s remind us that showing lets the reader do some of the work. It requires the reader to be more involved and engaged. Telling has a way of excluding the reader, pushing her out of the moment. Besides, I don’t want to be told what to see or think or feel. I want to see or think or feel it for myself!
Last semester I assigned my sophomore English students a brief creative writing exercise–something like, write about a person you love without telling us you love them.
When they read their written responses out loud, I acknowledged their sentiments, frowning all the while. Getting the theory of “Show, Don’t Tell” is one thing. Putting it to good practice is another. It is time, I announced to them, to introduce some constraints!
Late in Booklife, Jeff Vandermeer suggests introducing constraints as a way of re-vitalizing creativity and as a way of, perhaps, jarring writers out of ruts into new directions.
“The introduction of a constraint,” Jeff writes, “forces you to work within a boundary, and by staying within that boundary finding new opportunities. For example, take a problem part of your text and ban the letter ‘t’ or ‘a’ from it. See if you can reconstruct the text and have it roughly mean the same without using that letter. In forcing your mind to perform this exercise, you often hit upon a new path out of your problem” (221).
I love this passage. I love the idea of “forcing your mind” and opening “new paths.” In this case, I needed constraints to get my students around a conceptual block.
Last semester, my freshman humanities class was reading Booklife while my sophomore English class was having trouble putting into practice the difference between showing and telling. So I devised the following exercise.
1. As a group, list all the synonyms for love on the chalkboard. Include as many words as you can think of, including words closely and distantly associated with “love”.
2. Write about someone or something you love without using any of the words listed on the board.
3. Read what you’ve written out loud.
I started by writing “Love” on the board in great big letters. I asked the class to list all the words they could think of that meant love. The seventeen of them generated dozens of words, such as like, affection, caring, respect, admiration, etc. One joker in the back said “sex”. We filled up the board as quickly as I could write. They were quite proud of themselves. Look at all those words!
Little did they know that they had dug a deep hole for themselves.
“Now,” I said, “write about something or someone you love… without using any of the words that are on the board.”
After a few long seconds, the guy who’d called out “sex” earlier said, “I don’t get it.”
Meanwhile, the others fell into writing.
A few nights ago, the students in my night class did this exercise. Many of them are fifteen or more years away from their last English class. Only one or two had even a vague idea when we started of what I meant by “Show, Don’t Tell.” One of the women wrote about her favorite flavors of ice cream in such a way that one of the men actually blushed. Her classmates were fanning themselves by the time she got to the part about stirring the rich chocolate and creamy vanilla together in her bowl.
One student, who wrote about his wife who is also in the class, came to this conclusion:
1. Telling = “I love you,” he said to her.
2. Telling + Showing = He greeted her at the door with a hug and her favorite chocolate ice cream. “I love you,” he said.
3. Showing = He greeted her at the door with ice cream.
The first one (telling) doesn’t do enough to stand alone. He says he loves her. Does he mean it? What does “love” mean to him? To her? We haven’t been shown much about him or her. We hear a sort of radio silence more so than the words; there is a background drone, but no music yet.
The second one (showing + telling) tells us what he said and backs it up with actions. Good stuff.
The third (showing) is all action. We know that he gives her chocolate ice cream, but we don’t know what his action means. Does he love her? Does she like chocolate ice cream? Is she fatally allergic? Is she on a diet and he’s trying to sabotage her efforts? We have to read on, to know more. We are engaged.
In both the second and the third, we have enough information to wonder about the back-story and enough to wonder what comes next. Both crucial elements in fiction.
Will she eat the ice cream? Will she knock it out of his hands and… ravish him? Kick him where it hurts real bad? Will he massage her feet while she eats the ice cream? Will he listen to the ups-and-downs of her day without trying to fix all her problems? Or will he expect a little sugar in exchange?
“Show, Don’t Tell” is fundamental to what we do as writers. It’s been around for so long for a reason. Essayists combine the two. Fiction writers use both but skew toward showing. The pure showing of an objective point of view can be… cold and distancing. Telling isn’t all bad. But all telling is definitely dull.
Every now and then it is fun to introduce a constraint into your work and see what you get. It’s also fun to drag out old rules and take a fresh look at them with pen or pencil in hand.