There is an important piece of writer’s advice floating around out there. You’ve probably run across it before. It’s on most writer’s advice websites, written on blackboards of creative writing classes, it’s on the lips of writing instructors, shaved into stationary cats, and probably written in the stars themselves:
Show don’t tell.
I’m not fond of this advice. Sure, at its heart, it has a valuable message. In simplest terms, show don’t tell encourages a novice writer to do more than simply report a series of events. To show is to encourage the readers to have a visceral, emotional, and empathetic reaction to what they are reading. A writer of creative fiction should do more than just report what happened like a newspaper article. The trouble is that while creative writing instructors are busy carving the words show don’t tell onto every pebble on a beach, they have failed to notice that the novice writers have not learned the important part of the lesson.
To truly appreciate the importance of show don’t tell, you need more than a novice’s understanding of writing. There is a need to understand that showing is incredibly nuanced, and an experienced writer must know when to sink into a scene and when to pull back and get to the crux of matters. Further, showing is more than just describing a physical process in place of using a simple verb or resorting to describing (often cliched) human reactions instead of reporting a character’s emotion. Sometimes it is better to just say “Marie ran” or “Marie was heartbroken.”
Look at Luke’s recent article on the importance of interaction. If you boil Luke’s message down to simplest terms, he’s saying that what is happening around Marie is much more interesting when you show how she moves through the environment, rather than just telling the reader what she is doing. He could have saved writing the article if he had just written three words: show don’t tell. There is so much more behind what Luke is saying, though. His article belies a deeper understanding of those three words that extends past the surface of the narration and gets to the heart of show don’t tell‘s actual message, but he arrived at that destination through his process. In short, Luke needed his experience as a writer to understand a single facet of the incredibly complex soundbite advice that is show don’t tell.
In the hands of a novice, show don’t tell is often over-privileged, and that is the road to purple prose and overwriting. If you want some examples, look at the opening paragraphs of my sections on Charlotte’s Journey. I have a habit of overwriting in the beginning of a scene because it helps me get into the minutia of what is happening, but it really is too much for a casual reader.
Because this advice has (apparently) been etched into the fabric of space-time, there is no way to get rid of it. Nor should we! Show don’t tell has huge value, but we must also temper the advice and recognise the power of simply telling. Reporting an event, just telling, is a great tool when used judiciously by a writer.
In 1975, the character of Henry Blake in M*A*S*H was (four decade old spoiler alert!) killed in his own farewell episode, “Abyssinia, Henry.” Henry’s death is not shown in the episode. M*A*S*H‘s tone and format, and really the scope of the show itself, made such a visual spectacle impossible. Instead, Henry’s death is told to the cast and the audience:
Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan… it spun in. There were no survivors.
It doesn’t get any more tell than that. But, in simply being told of Col. Blake’s death, M*A*S*H manages to show us so much more. Not only Radar’s reaction to the news, but the faces of the rest of the cast in the OR. The clip embedded here cuts off before the camera’s slow pan across the whole cast’s shocked reactions, but the scene lingers for a few moments as the doctors and nurses on the 4077th silently continue to operate in the face of the news. The only sound is a surgical instrument dropping to the floor (which, according to Snopes, was unscripted, but still perfect).
When “Abyssinia, Henry” first aired, there was a public outcry. Some people loved Henry’s death, others hated it, but outright killing a character on a half-hour sitcom simply was not done in the 1970s. Blake’s death was a shock for everyone, but for some it felt all the more senseless because of the way it was delivered at the end of a typical goodbye episode. The real-world reaction, where thousands of letters were written to the show’s producers, demonstrates the power of telling. Being told generated a huge empathetic reaction in the audience. Compare to a similar situation at the climax of Captain America: The First Avenger. Steve Rogers has foiled the Red Skull’s nefarious plans and is ditching the doomsday plane in the Arctic Ocean. There, we are shown his ‘final’ moments (they thaw him out a few moments later, completely undercutting the drama), and the cliched radio conversation with his love interest, Agent Peggy Carter. Which death by airplane feels more authentic, more visceral, more real?
Of course, the scene in “Abyssinia, Henry” is doing much more than just telling us about Henry Blake’s death. It is showing us the whole cast of characters’ reaction to the news, showing us their dedication to saving lives in that they pause only momentarily, it is showing us the senselessness of random death in war (extremely topical for audiences in 1975)… the major plot event is simply reported, but in telling the audience that one thing, the creators of M*A*S*H carved out an opportunity to show so much more. The trick is in knowing when to do what. Show don’t tell can be powerful advice, but it is perhaps best received when tempered with words like “known when to show, know when to tell.” Maybe we could get the cat to roll over and shave those words into its other side.