What is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’?
There is a popular quote on showing and telling — attributed to Anton Chekov — that goes, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
You’ve probably seen it around the internet or in a writing advice book. It has become so ubiquitous it could be considered a writer bumper sticker. But what exactly does Chekov mean?
Despite the bad rap it gets, there is actually nothing wrong with telling. We call it storytelling, after all! A century ago, many books were ‘told’ instead of shown. They were written as if the narrator is sitting in a chair recounting a series of events to you from his personal notebook, square-rimmed spectacles sliding down his nose. Since there were few other forms of entertainment to turn to, the populace was riveted.
Fast forward to today, in the digital age. We now live in a world that moves at breakneck speed, and we want our entertainment to do likewise. We are constantly inundated with a new selection of movies and TV shows, and obviously, they are all visual in nature. Long story short, the populace has changed the way it prefers to consume entertainment.Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. - Anton Chekov Click To Tweet
Why is it Important to Show Your Scenes?
Audiences today, whether they are readers or viewers, want to be shown things. (But this is not kindergarten class, so please don’t bring your pet iguana!) All this means is that we want to be part of the action. We want you to put us in a character’s shoes. We want to be connected to the emotions of your characters.
Good news for you, there is a trick to doing this.
Close your eyes, and try to think of a scene in images. Look through the eyes of your character, and see what they see.
What is happening around them? What catches their eye? If this were a movie, where would the camera zoom in to draw the focus of the audience? What might you deliberately leave out of focus for the character — or the viewer — to miss?
If you do not naturally think of your stories in images, it can be helpful to use pictures or even videos to stretch those visualization muscles. You can create a board on Pinterest or a playlist on YouTube, and fill it with things that remind you, no matter how vaguely, of the story or scene you are working on. Use this to make a little movie that runs in your head. Then chronicle the actions your characters take within this living diorama.
You want to be sure to use showing when it is important to immerse the reader in your story world. When you need them to be so lost in the story that they lose track of time, and maybe even miss an important clue.#amediting? @BreanneRushing shares trick for showing scenes as images in Show vs Tell... Click To Tweet
When is it Better to Tell?
Just because you should look for ways to show a scene with more detail, does not mean you need to go through your entire manuscript and cut out every instance of telling. Sometimes telling is necessary.
Telling will be useful when you want to control pacing. To speed up events in your story, you may want to narrate to the reader what happened in the background or within a certain time frame, without showing every detail. Think of this like ‘fast-forwarding’ through a minor event in order to keep the focus on a more important one.When is it better to tell? When is it better to show? #Editor @BreanneRushing explains on the #85K90... Click To Tweet
When Should You Avoid Telling?
Telling can be a lot like gossip.
Imagine that you are working at a diner and a friend walks up and begins to tell you a juicy story about another coworker. ‘Pamela freaked out yesterday,’ your friend — let’s call her Karen — says. ‘I heard she almost broke something and then stormed out. I bet she’s having relationship trouble again.’
Someone is standing across from you and relating events. If the story is short it might hold your attention. But if Karen then begins to drone on and on about every secondhand detail she thinks she knows about Pamela’s personal life, most of us tend to tune out.
Let’s use the scene Karen described as an example. We’ll make Pamela our main character and enter her head space during her episode. Say you begin the scene like this:
‘Pamela felt so angry that she wanted to break something.’
Unfortunately, this is an example of telling. The one time that you should try to avoid telling the most is when it comes to a character’s emotions. You are assuming that your audience can’t figure out from the context how Pamela feels.Avoid telling a character’s emotions. Show vs Tell explained by @BreanneRushing with tips for #editing… Click To Tweet
In order to help your audience understand your character’s emotional state without telling, you need to include action:
‘Pamela slammed the plate down on the counter, nearly cracking it in two. She clenched her fists, then spun on her heel and made a beeline for the door.’
There, doesn’t that read as anger or extreme frustration? In fact, it’s good if there is some room for interpretation. People rarely feel only one emotion, nor do they always know how to express exactly what they are feeling. Saying ‘Pamela felt angry’ barely scratches the surface of what Pamela’s actual inner turmoil may look like.
As with all writing advice, there are no stone-carved rules here. Deciding whether you show or tell a scene should always depend on the needs of your story. Use your best judgment, give a few of these tips a try, and most of all, keep practicing!
About Breanne Rushing
Breanne Rushing is a freelance fiction editor who specializes in working with indie authors. She is a self-proclaimed ‘grammar gremlin slayer’, and puts it on all of her bios. Everyone is too afraid to tell her that it is lame. Learn about Breanne and the editing services she provides on her website: www.rushingbee-editing.com.
Visit Breanne Rushing’s Member Page on the 85K Writing Challenge.