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Show Don't Tell Writing

Show, Don’t Tell…a Workshop, kinda.

You’re a writer so you’ve most likely heard the sage writing advice of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. It is of course very sound advice for any budding writer, seasoned writers know well the rule.

The question though is OK, great advice, thanks but what the hell does it mean to show and don’t tell? I mean, as a writer, what am I supposed to do with that, where do I start? This ladies and gentlemen was the rocky foundation for the latest weekly discussion on Finding Your Writers Voice.

Discussing the writing advice of Show, Don't Tell
Show Don’t Tell

Before we delve into the intricacies of Show, Don’t Tell, let’s start with another piece of advice, this time from Pixar writer, Andrew Stanton. In his TED talk, Andrew talks about, The Unifying Theory of 2+2.

Make the audience put things together.  Don’t give them four, give them two plus two

Andrew Stanton, Pixar
Andrew Stanton – 2+2

He goes on to say he’s learned the audience wants to work for their meal, they just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s where you, the storyteller, earn your keep! Your job is to hide from the audience the fact that you’re making them work for their meal.

Think about that for a moment. Your storytelling skills need to be focused on giving just enough detail to make the story realistic and believable but not so much that every detail is covered. You need to leave gaps that the audience fills in.

The fascinating thing about this is that everyone fills the gap differently. Every reader sees something different. Sure, you’ve shown stuff, but the human imagination interprets it in a million ways.

In her book, ‘Understanding Show, Don’t Tell’ author Janice Harding shares some advice, ‘A common rule of thumb: As long as it feels like the character is thinking it, you’re usually ok. But as soon as it sounds like the author is butting in to explain things, you’re probably falling into telling.’

Someone is happy. How do you show this? If they are young you can show them hopping and skipping, jumping over things, and laughing. What about if your character is considerably older and unlikely to be jumping over fences? Remember how Charlie Chaplin used to have that funny walk when he was happy, with his cane being spun around in his hands. Saying someone is happy is the lazy way to describe this emotion. Think about how to show this emotion or any emotion.

You might, at this stage, be a little confused and ask, are there any guiding principles that I can use to help me with this literary device? Well, as luck would have it there are, six of them in fact courtesy of Diane Callahan, Quotidian Writer. In her much-watched video she outlines six principles:

  1. Use evidence to support your claims.
  2. Replace the abstract with the concrete
  3. Substitute vague descriptions with specific sensory details
  4. Avoid relying too much on body language
  5. Show emotion through dialogue
  6. Filter observations through the narrative voice

I’ll pop briefly into one example from the first principle and share the video below so you can watch the full-length dissection of this topic for yourself.

Author Chuck Palahniuk – Fight Club, Choke, advises a ban on thought verbs like, thinks, knows, understands, realises, believes, wants, remembers, and imagines.  He talks about unpacking scenes so that the reader feels and thinks about what the characters are feeling and thinking.

He gives the following example, instead of saying,

Adam knew Gwen liked him‘,

He would say;

Between classes, Gwen was always leaning on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass. And the next break, Gwen would be leaning there again.’

Can you see the difference? Can you feel the difference with your senses? Smell the perfume, hear the foot leaving a mark, and feel the warm lock?

Palahniuk develops this idea further telling us, ‘Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something,  you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Show, Don’t Tell – Diane Callahan – Quotidian Writer

Another way to think about showing and not telling is to imagine you’re the camera looking at a scene. You see one angle. Describe that angle, what do you see. Now, you’re suddenly switched to another camera and another angle. What does the scene look like from this angle?

Movie directors have multiple cameras rolling to capture a scene from multiple points of view. Andrew Stanton from Pixar says, ‘Storytelling without dialogue is the purest form of cinematic storytelling.’. As a writer, you have the opportunity to show a scene with greater depth, than a movie director. You can write about the unseen narrative taking place in your character’s head, creating an emotion in the reader that it impossible in the viewer.

Perhaps the show don’t tell is summed up best by K.M. Weiland when she says, ‘Telling is not inherently bad – in fact all stories are a blend of telling and showing’. As a writer, you can use this literary device to manage pacing and to quote one of our writers from FYWV, ‘to paint a picture in the reader’s mind’.

Perhaps it wasn’t the workshop you were led to believe it was, nonetheless, it was an interesting evening…

Two last-minute recommendations from the evening:

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