A Debate on Show, Don’t Tell

Some thoughts on show, don’t tell. You can read the whole article on Writer’s Digest.

#03 Show, Don’t Tell.
FOLLOW IT: Of course you should show, not tell, but what does that mean? Your mind must be trained like a mirror to reflect reality. You must transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. “I had a nice trip,” tells us only that a journey was involved. An LSD trip or an excursion to a museum or a voyage down the Nile? We don’t know. We need details to let us envision where you’ve been.

Writing is a visual art—and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract; it is full of particulars. Those school assignments of “what I did on my summer vacation” actually had potential. Instead of embracing them, though, I wrote out of fear: I had a good time. It was very interesting and fun. I told the teacher about my summer vacation and gave her nothing at all. What if I’d shown her instead? My mother dyed her hair red, smoked Marlboros, while my sister and I played Parcheesi on the back porch, sitting on the cool cement. My father ate an early dinner of steak and iceberg lettuce each night before he left to tend bar until 5 a.m.

This is what was real for me in my 11th summer. It would have given my teacher a chance to know me better, bringing my life into vivid focus. This is what a writer must do: Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view. Alas, then no one will ever know.
—Natalie Goldberg

BREAK IT: OK, OK. Generally speaking, this rule is sound. Make it concrete. Externalize that which is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four-letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph. Yeah.

Except … there are times when what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.
It’s the change of mood in a stadium when the fans know, with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose. It’s the buoyancy of the new spring fashions. It’s the intuition out of nowhere, for no solid reason, that she’s going to leave me.

So, how to break 
this rule? Realize there can be tension in the invisible. It can’t be found in what’s invisible, per se. But it can be found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.

The trick to telling is to base your passage in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, in subtext, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment.

You can’t measure change in that which is static—say, the boulder your protagonist sits on to make big decisions. The rock doesn’t change. The drama is inside. Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.
—Donald Maass

Courtesy, Ricardo

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About Richard S.

M.P.A. Candidate, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs | History buff, econ geek, policy wonk and aspiring author from Los Angeles. Follow me on Twitter @richard_cecil
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