If you’re someone remotely involved with writing in any way you’ve heard the tired adage “show don’t tell” more times than you’d care to relive. And the most terrible thing is that most of the time you heard it, you heard it because someone “told” you. There’s a bit of irony in that, don’t you think? This sentiment is, however, invaluable to those of us who wish to communicate through writing in ways that evoke emotion and reward the reader rather than bruise and browbeat. Basically, showing versus telling always falls under a general bit of good advice to let your readers figure things out for themselves.
So what exactly, tangibly and concretely, does “showing not telling” look like in practice? Showing, as opposed to telling, can be seen in every aspect of our writing, and in fiction it is particularly complex.
If you’ve consulted an editor on a fiction manuscript or attended a writing workshop in the past 20 years, you’ve probably been “told” that you should show and not tell whatever it is your characters are saying. This might be confusing, so let’s look at what’s meant by this in the following scene:
“That’s preposterous!” he exclaimed.
“It is not,” she retorted. “Jimmy told me so, and I believe everything he tells me.”
“It’s not as if it would even be possible for a gimp like him to wrestle a live chimpanzee!” he argued, logically and effectively.
“I guess you could be right about that,” she conceded.
You see, besides the fact that the above scene is completely out of context and we can’t make head or tails of such a small sample of a story, we can see how the author has used attribution words such as exclaimed, retorted, argued, and conceded, to tell the reader exactly how what is said was said. When you are advised to show and not tell in regard to dialogue attribution it has to do with getting rid of these words in favor of the simple “said,” and allowing your dialogue to speak for itself. Well written dialogue has no need for such decorations. It is effective because we can tell from what is said, exactly how it is said. Let’s look at how this is shown in the chapter on dialogue mechanics in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:
“But didn’t you promise…” Jesse said.
“I did nothing of the sort,” Tyrone said.
Dudley stepped between them and held up his hands. Now, look, you two—”
Tyrone spun on him. “You stay out of this.”
Notice that here, a reader has no difficulty seeing that Jesse is upset, Tyrone disagrees with Jesse and is becoming angry, and Dudley is playing peacekeeper. And the author didn’t have to tell us all of that. As for the matter (read: excuse) of using different attributions for the sake of variety, using the word “said” becomes as unnoticed as well placed punctuation when it is done consistently, and your readers will thank you for not being subjected to the extra adverbial carry-on bags on their trip to Fiction Land.
Now let’s look at what kind of problems can occur in regard to this issue with “beats.” Beats are bits of action that occur between the dialogue, and when used appropriately, help create an effective scene. In chapter eight of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “Easy Beats,” Renni Browne notes, “as with interior monologue, it’s very easy to interrupt your dialogue so often that you bring its pace to a halt.” Yes, beats add variety to dialogue so that it doesn’t become monotonous to the reader. But something about the nature of beats dictates that they be used both skillfully and sparingly: they can all too easily be used to tell your reader exactly what should be seen. In order to show rather than tell in this blog, the following is an example of beats that beat the reader over the head and tell what to see instead of showing it:
“I don’t understand why you don’t just leave me,” he said, looking askance on the pitiful, crumpled excuse for a woman in a pink dress who was once the apple of his eye.
“It’s because I can’t imagine life without you,” she said, sobbing into the sopping wet, mauve handkerchief she’d purchased earlier at the outdoor flea market at the corner of 5th and Stone in Obviouston, Pennsylvania.
You see, besides being all around ridiculous dialogue, the above is the perfect example of telling your reader exactly what they should see. When you are told (ironically) to show and not tell in regard to your beats, it has to do with allowing the dialogue to show the characters’ physical and mental state and not resorting to simply telling the reader what to read between the lines of dialogue.
The best beats are unobtrusive, the exact opposite of what we see above. Look at this example, again from the chapter “Easy Beats,” taken from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams:
“You don’t have to talk about this,” I said.
“I don’t ever talk about him. Sometimes I’ll go a day or two without even thinking about him, and then I get scared I might forget he ever was.”
I laid a hand on his gearshift arm. “You want me to drive?”
Here we get a good sense of the seriousness of the scene without the author interjecting adverbial phrases to tell us how what is said is said, and without superfluous beats. Rather, the single beat, “I laid a hand on his gearshift arm,” standing alone in the section of dialogue, carries greater weight and meaning. And it profoundly affects the mood of the scene because of this.
The untold art of storyshowing has a lot to do with knowing when less is more. One of the greatest rewards of the reading experience is figuring out what to see and creating pictures in the mind’s eye. But readers cannot do this if the author’s vision is such that it must be dictated instead of allowed to organically grow from the seeds planted in the text.