Resolving Common Story Issues With "Show, Don't Tell"
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
This quote, often attributed to Anton Chekhov, is frequently used as an example of the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique that can help writers craft descriptive sensory language. Thanks to the rise of film and television, the use of such language has grown popular in recent decades, with readers favoring fiction they can visualize as clearly as a movie in their minds’ eye.
I first discussed this shift toward film-making principles (and away from fiction’s previously popular all-knowing narrator) in my first article on the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique. But today, I want to re-examine “Show, Don’t Tell” in a new light, taking a look at how this method can prove just as impactful when applied to some of our stories’ most important elements.
Utilizing “Show, Don’t Tell” on a macro-level…
After writing my initial article, I received an email from a long-time Well-Storied reader and friend named Leftie Aubé (who runs a fantastic personal writing account on Instagram at @leftieaube). In her email, Leftie shared how she uses “Show, Don’t Tell” on a macro-level to craft believable characters and story worlds.
To provide an example, Leftie explained how George R. R. Martin uses the technique to explore Jon Snow’s character in A Game of Thrones. Martin doesn’t tell readers that Jon believes himself to be a better person than the other recruits on the Wall, most of whom are sent there as a form of criminal punishment. Instead, he shows readers by crafting a scene in which Jon uses his superior swordsmanship to demean the other boys during a training session.
Before receiving Leftie’s email, I’d never considered how the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique could be applied at this level. My study of the topic had always focused on using “Show, Don’t Tell” to craft immersive descriptions, which is exactly what I shared in my first article on the topic. But Leftie’s email got me thinking about how utilizing “Show, Don’t Tell” on a macro-level could solve many common reader critiques, such as:
I know they were supposed to be in love, but I just didn’t feel the chemistry between the romantic leads.
This book featured soooo many boring info-dumps. I skimmed like crazy.
The themes in this book were way too heavy-handed. I felt like the author was preaching.
When considering such critiques, it occurred to me that they often result from a distinct lack of showing. After all, readers can’t believe in your characters’ chemistry if you don’t craft scenes that show why the characters are attracted to one another.
Similarly, readers will always enjoy a scene that shows them how your magic system works, rather than a lengthy info-dump that explains it. And allowing readers to draw their own conclusions about your story’s message from the plot and character arcs you’ve shown them is a surefire way to keep your themes from feeling preachy. Make sense?
Utilizing “Show, Don’t Tell” on a macro-level is all about inviting readers into your story world, allowing them to see and experience your characters’ lives as if they were right there beside them — or even in the characters’ shoes. By crafting scenes that serve as examples of the larger points you’re trying to make, you keep your storytelling present and immersive.
Can “telling” serve a purpose on a macro-level?
Despite the virtues of showing in modern fiction, there’s a place for telling as well. As I explained in my original article on “Show, Don’t Tell,” telling is a far more expedient approach to relaying information, making it invaluable in scenes where brevity is needed to maintain the pace you’ve established.
Telling can also be the better option when relaying backstory and other forms of exposition that would otherwise require you to deal with flashbacks, unnecessary shifts in point-of-view, and other deviations from your present story.
The key to telling effectively lies in telling with purpose.
Lengthy info-dumps aren’t always a bad thing, but if cutting them wouldn’t change the outcome of your story, they need to go. Telling readers about a character’s dark past, the passage of time, or other pieces of context isn’t bad either, so long as you’ve explored ways to show this information and found telling to be the better option.
When “telling” turns patronizing…
The trouble with using “Show, Don’t Tell” on a macro-level — or even when crafting sensory descriptions — is that showing requires the use of subtext. Rather than telling readers exactly what you want them to see or understand, subtext paints a picture from which readers must draw their own conclusions.
But what if readers don’t pick up what you’re laying down, drawing conclusions that contradict your intended meaning? This fear has led many an inexperienced writer to shy away from using subtext in their stories. Unfortunately, doing so most often results in writing that’s not only boring but patronizing.
Imagine if George R. R. Martin had told readers what was going on in Jon’s head rather than showing Jon’s mindset through his words and actions. If Martin had, we might have ended up with a passage like this:
“Jon knew he was far superior to the other boys. They were petty thieves, after all. Criminals. He might be a bastard, but at least he wasn’t one of them. He lifted his sword. He was going to make sure those boys knew just how much better than them he was.”
Doesn’t this phony passage feel cheap and patronizing? It treats the reader as if they couldn’t possibly understand what Jon was thinking if his thoughts weren’t spelled out for them word by word. By instead using subtext to invite readers inside his story-world, Martin crafted a far more immersive and well-written story.
Utilizing “Show, Don’t Tell” in your story…
The next time you sit down to write, consider the major elements of your story. Ask yourself:
With your answers in mind, consider how you can craft scenes and story arcs that will show readers these elements.
George R. R. Martin used Jon’s actions on the training ground to show readers that Jon felt superior to the other boys, George Lucas used Luke Skywalker’s first experience with a lightsaber to show viewers how Jedi use the Force, and Suzanne Collins used the televised glamour of the Hunger Games to make a statement about the horrors of violence as entertainment.
Tell me, writer: How will you use the “Show, Don’t Tell” technique to show readers what matters most in your story?