Show Don’t Tell

Show Don’t Tell

Pam Uphoff

 

We’ve had requests for a blog along the lines of “But how do we do it?” So I’ll take first whack at it.

Short version? You take a short boring bit that gets you past the messy details and into the part you want to write—and you go back and put in the messy details, especially those emotions you didn’t want to slather all over your beautiful clean manuscript.

I’m not good at explaining, but I can try to demonstrate, first draft to final publication.

So here’s wizard, doing some experimental magical genetic engineering.
Telling—he’s passing it off like practically nothing happened:

“No kidding. Now stop trying to divert me from these longevity genes. You aren’t going to experiment on your own dogs, are you?” Q looked at him suspiciously.

“Yep. I did Lion already. Four hours and he’s fine.” He winced at her glare. “I’m standing by, in case he needs to be switched back, and I have wine.”

Showing—make it hurt:

Xen studied the old dog carefully, found the same gene complexes, and very gently started changing them, one at a time. With pauses in between to check the dog for signs that he had done something Really Bad to his cellular metabolism. When he was done, the old dog didn’t seem any different. Lion heaved himself to his feet and walked stiffly out to circle the sheep. Walked partway back, staggering a bit.

Xen sat up in alarm and trotted out to meet him. The old dog laid down, his head drooped.

“Lion?” Xen sank his awareness into the dog. Wish I could see like a witch . . . He’s very low on energy.

He looked into the bubble he called his backpack. A change of clothes, food, water and the Wine of the Gods.

He pulled out the food, coaxed Lion to eat . . . with minimal success.

He scooped the dog up and traveled to Lady Gisele’s garden. Tried to keep his voice steady. “My first patient seems to be dying. He’s low on energy.”

“Humph. Let’s see.” The old crone reached out to stroke the dog. “Indeed.” She reached over to her shelves and plucked off a bottle.

“That’s maple syrup.”

“Yes, dear, and good source of sugar, to get his gylcogen levels up. Let’s see if he can swallow it . . . Hmm, well, a bit of tubing . . . ”

She plucked plastic tubing from nowhere, and wormed it down Lion’s throat.

“There’s a funnel behind you, third shelf, the small one . . . thank you.”

He go the funnel into the tube and poured a teaspoon of maple syrup into it.

“Now, let’s see what’s happening on the cellular level . . . Oh dear.”

Xen was following her vision as far as he could. Chromosomes writhing about, under attack by his ribozymes, ripping into the right genes and then building up the new ones, grabbing the chemicals needed . . . whether the rest of the cell could spare them or not. Whether the cell needed that gene—old or new version, right then.

Cells were dying, fast. Lots of them.

Everything they tried made it worse.

They couldn’t save him.

Xen spent the rest of the day out on the hills with the sheep and the horses.

Cradling his old dog.

Blackie and Silky crawled up to him, crying.

Quicksilver showed up in the mid-afternoon. Just sat down silently.

“So . . . I was over confident.”

“What were you trying to do?”

He hauled out his spells and let her look them over. “The longevity genes.”

“An essential transformation? Xen . . . that is brilliant work.”

Xen shook his head. “It just tore into the genes and started changing them. It was too fast, too much all at once . . . or maybe those genes are multipurposed to something in basal cell metabolism, that can’t be interrupted.”

She sighed. “I’m better at physics. This stuff . . . I can do it, using other peoples spells. I don’t grasp the significance of possible genetic changes, of how to invent them.”

“I wasn’t really inventing new genes. I was changing the genes at eight specific sites to slightly different genes. Known genes, ones that will work fine.”

“In humans. Maybe not in dogs?”

“The Hell Hounds have some of them. Lion had one copy each of three of them. I just tried to give him the other five, and double pairs. He . . . ran out of glycogen, and the changes were messing up the cell chemistry. Even getting sugar into him didn’t help, and when I tried to stop the process . . . well, the chromosomes started falling apart.” He pet the cold stiff form in his lap. “I killed him.”

 

Or how about some cross-dimensional scientific cooperation?

A perfectly adequate mention:

“So, your first scientific expedition from another polity – and it had to be them.” Xen grinned across the table at his sister.

She grinned cheerfully back. “And an interesting trio the Arbolians are. Both the men are natural wizards, with enough training to shield their natures from me, if they hadn’t gone and shook hands. The girl has no power genes but a fair collection of the rest. They all seem very smart, and very much what they claim to be, otherwise. One astronomer, one photographic specialist, one guy to keep everything working. In any case, they’re parked up on that hill busy all night and sleeping all day.”

And then showing:

I am an ambassador. They dare not kill me.

Hadley Greene forced himself to walk calmly and steadily across the plaza. Why must they make everything so large? So far away? We should acquire one of those vehicles. One of those limos. A large black one, worthy of my status. Or white for my purity.

They had always said the power had been too weak in him—they had not allowed him to go on to the more advanced training of the priesthood. Thirty years later, the rejection still burned. Especially now, in his maturity, when he understood that his only lack had been money for bribes or political influence on his maternal family’s side.

And now, so poorly trained, I must walk alone into that vipers’ nest of feral gods. I dare not even bring an aide, who could be influenced, ordered to murder me in my sleep some night in the future.

It wasn’t the sun overhead that was making him sweat.

He didn’t allow himself to stop at the road, nor the base of the steps. By the time he reached the top, the double doors were open, and two men . . . no. Two gods. Unchained, uncontrolled, unmastered . . .

I could take one, for my own. The priests would bow before me. Weak? Ha!
He eyed the two gods. The young one. I want him. He swallowed saliva. But not now. No, I’ll have to find him alone, off his guard. Asleep would be best.

He stopped a cautious distance away, stood straight and tall, and raised his chin. “I am Hadley Greene, Ambassador for Arbolia. I require your assistance for a scientific expedition.”

The young one nodded. “I’m sure that we will be delighted to assist you. May I introduce Dr. Quail Quicksilver? She is in charge of Science and Exploration.” He stepped back and gestured invitingly as a young woman stepped forward.

Abomination! A female with power! But that glow is unmistakable. Except, there is no sexual attraction. Of course, abnormal genes. That would explain it. It’s not a True Female. I could take it, transform it into the God of Women. No. The God of Sex.

He was so deep into plots that he nearly forgot to be afraid as he stepped into the den of the deadly wild gods.

***

“. . . proper scientific study of these dimensions. So we expect your cooperation.” The Arbolian ambassador was watching her with a hungry expression. Sweating.

Q kept her expression politely neutral.

Lust or terror? How can one tell with a hideous perv like this?

And why did the first request for scientific project have to come from them?
The man is a mage of some sort, possibly one of their priests.

I should get a genetic sample for Mother. She talked about these people . . . I thought she was exaggerating.

“I appreciate your interest in science, Ambassador. This looks like a very interesting project. We will support it, and assist as necessary. Have your project people contact me about what they will need.” She stood and extended a hand.

He recoiled . . . stared at her hungrily. “They will contact you.” He turned and walked out.

Crap.

She glanced suddenly at the corner of the office. A light warp unraveled.

“So, your first scientific expedition from another polity—and it had to be them.” Xen grinned.

She shook her head. “Being over protective, Big Bro?”

“Yeah. I didn’t like the way he salivated when he looked at me and Inso.” He walked to the doorway and grinned back at her. “But he did seem to find you sexy.”

He ducked away from a threatened fireball, and she grabbed a tissue and swabbed the edge of her desk. Maybe Mother can sort out his DNA. She dropped the tissue in a bag and sealed it. I do like plastic. It’s going to be a bigger import category than electronics.

***

“We need to do a first survey from several wildly different worlds, and analyze the results.” Lord Marius Menchuro of Arbolia was an astronomer. A serious young man, with none of the ambassador’s hunger. He’d shaken her hand without hesitation, as had his assistants.

Trace and Trill Breesdon were brother and sister. Trill was a photographic expert, Trace an expert at keeping everything working.

“Everything” being a twenty-four inch reflecting telescope mounted on a horse drawn wagon, and a huge camera for taking long exposure photographs, and the photographic lab, in addition to a great deal of camping equipment.

Damn. Now this is interesting. Studying the planets, moons and asteroids for changes from world to world.

“Indeed. Let me introduce you to the maze. I think we have everything—every place—you’ll need for this first survey already easily available.”

 

Another example This time from my eccentric time traveler:

First draft:

When we landed, I started laying out the plans for two space fighters. Then I had to break for a bit to calm down the accountant and sign some late tax papers and so forth. Good grief. I hired him to not bother me. He calmed down eventually. Until I told him it was going to happen regularly.

Final Draft:

Then I had to calm down Natalie and Aura and sign some late tax papers and so forth. Good grief. I’d hired them to not bother me. They calmed down eventually. Until I told them it was going to happen regularly.

“We’ll be away regularly, and come back every September, probably, to recuperate. Just file the taxes.”

“What kind of bloody resort are you?”

“A private one.”

“Your income is from selling rare metals?”

“We like to mine, but it is a bit dangerous. So we needed a nice tranquil spa to come home to.”

Aura crossed her arms, looking a great deal less like a fluffy-head than usual. “We looked all over for you. What is that weird machine in the practically hidden warehouse?”

“A very large three dee printer. Very advanced. Don’t touch it.”

“And the practically hidden airplane hanger?”

“It’s for the airplane. Vertical takeoff and landing, so don’t ask me why I don’t have an airstrip.”

They glowered at me.

I tried again. “Umm, couldn’t find a good batcave?”

Double glare.

So much for popular entertainment . . . But they’d never believe the truth.

“Time Travelers?”

Natalie growled. “Sign here and here. Write a check for this amount. Mail it, dammit. Today.”

“Space Aliens?”

“And here’s my bill.”

“How about I give you signature authority . . . ”

“No! Doing your paperwork is scary enough! God forbid anyone would think I was a part of your amazingly weird . . . group.”

Go through your manuscript, and hunt down those quick little unemotional spots . . . and tell the whole thing. Bleed on the paper. Or laugh. Just don’t let it lay there, neutral and boring.

 

15 Comments

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15 responses to “Show Don’t Tell

  1. paladin3001

    So find the boring bits, fill in interesting details, move to the next bit. Got it.

    • In other words, don’t summarize important or interesting bits.

      A common mistake I find when editing novice manuscripts is that they detail everything else, but then summarize the conclusions of pivotal scenes, making them fall flat. (In its extreme form, “Then everybody died.”)

      I also observe that when a writer feels the urge to do machete revision, the problem typically isn’t useless scenes; it’s underdeveloped scenes that would be just fine, even necessary, were they properly detailed… at which point they’ll integrate with and help propel the rest of the story.

      OTOH, don’t waste the reader’s attention showing repetitively. How the alien copes with the toilet-that-doesn’t-fit-his-arse might be interesting in detail once, but after that “Garg burped, excused himself, and ran for the outhouse” would better suffice.

      Perhaps the most basic rule:
      SHOW what you want the reader to pay attention to.
      TELL what you want the reader to just note in passing.

  2. I suppose you could call this show-v-tell, but it’s not what I mean by it when I give a story one-star for it. What you’ve illustrated I would call “poor narrative choices.” That’s a real problem too, but it doesn’t make you want to throw the book across the room the way “bad telling” does. In my view, show-v-tell is not about basic information; it’s about feelings. It’s fatal to tell a reader how to feel about something; you need to show evidence that coaxes him/her into feeling that way. Nearly all beginner writers are very bad about this, so it’s really important to get that point across.

    I think you have some great “show” examples above (the hardest thing to do) but I fault your “tell” examples. Maybe good writers have too powerful an aversion to writing anything bad enough to be a good example of a “tell,” 🙂 so let me show you what I mean. Take your first example above, with Xen and Lion. The “show” version does an excellent job of showing that Xen really loved his dog and was crushed that his attempt to extend his life ended up killing him. Now let’s look at something that tells that:

    “Xen’s longevity experiment was supposed to make dogs live longer, but when he tried it on Lion, the old dog just got sick. Then he died. Xen loved his dog, so he was sad to see him die.”

    This, I claim, is the kind of telling that causes a slush-pile editor to cheerfully discard your manuscript after just reading five paragraphs. (Or one.) In this example, of course, I’ve used the lamest possible narration, but look what happens if you just add “Xen loved his dog, so he was sad to see him die” to the end of your “show” example above. That one extra sentence makes the entire scene fall flat.

    Readers hate being told what to think. Not just editors, either. This business of “editorializing emotions” is (I claim) the biggest reason ordinary readers point to a piece of text as amateurish. They may not be able to articulate their reasons, but they instantly know that the writing is bad, and 90% of the time, it’s because it tells what must only be shown.

    An instructor of mine said “tell the visible but show the invisible.” That is, tell the readers that a person’s face turning red, but let them conclude that the person got angry; don’t tell them “He got angry” or “he was an angry person.” An exercise he gave us that brought it home to me was something like this: Betty really hates dogs. Her neighbor, Sally, owns a dog. Write 500 words to express the idea of “fear” without ever using the word “fear” or any related words.

    I don’t mean to seem contentious here; all your points in the article are great, but I think they’re applicable to writers who’ve already mastered show-v-tell.

    • Also, perspective matters. The POV character might reasonably think about someone else’s emotions, but generally not about their own (well, not unless they’re having an out-of-body experience, or are on the therapy couch). Their own emotions act from within while they’re happening; they don’t describe ’em from the outside. One might regard such as a POV break.

      So now my Node of Perversity has presented me with a robot experimenting with an emotion-chip, and making clinical observations about what it “feels”.

      • Dorothy Grant

        I’d have to say both things get conflated as show-don’t tell – and the show-don’t-tell Pam’s describing, I like another term that works well: narrative summary.

        Narrative summary is also very useful in pacing: the more in-depth you describe, the more you slow the pacing down, so if you want to keep the pace fast, you skip in-depth.

        Consider the difference in pacing between four paragraphs of a man closing up his office, going down the stairs, and heading to his car. Or:

        “I needed a drink. I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation. I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.”

    • A good point.

      I’m delighted to say that a quick hunt failed to find anything as basic as your examples! It’s an axiom that works at a lot of levels.

      Individual clunky tells, yes.

      But I ought to have explained that since the development of a practical elixir of long life was the whole point of the story, you can’t pass it off in a brief dialog with no details, no emotions, no failed trials. You have to show the whole process. You have to have failures. Emotions. Dark moments, so the bright ones shine.

      • And that was supposed to be a reply to greghullender’s excellent comment.

      • If only I could fix the not-so-excellent italics in that comment! (The word “show” was supposed to be in italics but “evidence” was not.) 😦

      • Maybe the most compact way to say it is that anyone can “tell” a story by simply stating what happened, but the result usually ends up reading like a Wikipedia article. E.g. “John killed the giant.”

        For anything important, the author needs to “show” the reader things that cause the reader to deduce the information, and this is a skill that doesn’t not come naturally to most people. E.g. writing a detailed scene of the fight with the giant.

        There are tradeoffs, and to some degree it’s a matter of taste what to show and what to tell, but there are a few things that you absolutely must not tell. Feelings, emotions, and personality characteristics must be shown. Telling them (E.g. “John was happy. He had a thing against giants.”) is a fatal error.

        That extends my definition of “show-v-tell” and makes it compatible with yours but still preserves what I think is most important about it. Also, I’m thinking “tell the visible to show the invisible” is a better slogan. 🙂

  3. Draven

    ok from my writing classes in film school

    (keep in mind films are different)

    1.Don’t tell it if you can show it.
    2.Don’t show and tell at the same time.
    3. (is in my notes somewhere and i remember disagreeing with it…)