Don't Tell. Show.
C. Neuroticus Absolutus
In search of the genius who was first to say, “Don't tell, show,” I found myriad entries on Google, but couldn't pin down a single originator, perhaps because I wasn't sure it was worth going through the 340,000,000 hits Google came up with in .19 seconds. I'd heard or read somewhere that Anton Chekhov was responsible for this construct of modern writing, so I Googled him next. The closest I could come to pinning the blame on Chekhov was one of his quotes: “Don't tell me the moon is shinning, show me the glint on broken glass.” Romantically descriptive. I'd ask Mr. Chekhov what he really meant, but sadly he died on July 15th, 1904, 109 years ago. After 109 years, is Mr. Chekhov still worthy of emulating? First, we must consider that Chekhov was Russian, so there is the translation from Russian to consider as well as the changes in culture, customs and habits from one society to another, and more than a century separating our work from his. With such dynamic activities as writing and language, it is amazing that Mr. Chekhov's 109-year-old proposal hasn't long been replaced by some other craze. Or has it?
As with the masterminds of any invention, Mr. Chekhov has a multitude of critics, including me, if he is truly the one responsible for this journalistic revolution. James Scott Bell tackles some of the conundrums of Show vs Tell in Chapter 8 of his book Revision & Self-Editing. Grammar Girl, in her infinite and web-based teaching of everything we should have learned in high school, has similar views concerning the application of the Show vs Tell.
It's not that this guideline isn't suitable for writing some literary genres, for it is. If your are writing an action packed spy novel, a shoot 'em up western, a lively adventure ala the Indiana Jones series or a blood-dripping vampire horror story, strong verbs and showing vis a vie telling are certainly a good choice. Note that I said a good choice, not the only choice. More about that later. Suffice to remember for now that showing is the realm of high-powered, stimulating action verbs. At least that is what writers have come to believe that Don't tell, Show means. But take a look back at Chekhov's original statement:. What does Chekhov's, “Don't tell me the moon is shinning, show me the glint on broken glass,” really mean? Where is his high-powered, stimulating action verb? Well, maybe that's not what Chekhov had in mind after all. “. . .the moon is shinning . . .” is a rather hum-drum observation. To paraphrase Chekhov, “Give the reader a hint of the effect of moonlight on the scene and let his imagination enjoy the discovery.”
For example, what if you're writing a romance novel, a travelogue, fantasy, sci-fi or literary fiction? Along these paths of discovery, appreciative readers will gladly slow down in order to sense the passion of a young lover's first kiss, feel the immensity of the Great Pyramid of Giza, visualize the horror or beauty of an alien life form, or enjoy a description of traveling the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in spring. And more, to appreciate a turn of phrase, a rhythmic passage, an alluring alliteration, to follow the writer in probing the depths of a scientific investigation or a spiritual revelation. In such writing, adjectives and adverbs are appropriate and appreciated for adding flavor, texture, taste, insight, color, and feeling to the words we ingest from the page.
Even within the paragraphs and pages of the same book, there is room to accommodate both Show and Tell as partners in bringing a story to life, just as a mixture of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, interjections, and conjunctions are necessary ingredients of a sentence.
Now I'll show you a story. Consider the following fictional situation:
In the final minute of the fifteenth round, Ruffian Ralph beat Boxer Bob furiously. Bob's legs wobbled, weakened. He shuffled around the ring, his tired arms barely able to fend off Ruffian's murderous attacks. Time and again, Ruffian penetrated Bob's defenses, swinging for a knock out. With each punch, torrents of sweat jumped from Bob's tortured body.
Bob fought back, struggled to overcome the pain that encompassed his entire being. He swung hard, mindlessly trading devastating punches, standing toe to toe with Ruffian. Renewed strength erupted from somewhere within and from each excited scream from the crowd. He heard them through the fog in his mind. He landed a solid right hook and suddenly it was his name that rocked the arena. “Bob! Bob! Bob!”
He sucked in a large breath of air and backed Ruffian to the ropes, landing punches at will. A viscous uppercut lifted Ruffian off his feet and he collapsed on the canvas. “One! Two! Three! . . . .” The referee shrieked.
Bob dragged himself to his corner and hung on the ropes.
“. . . Nine! TEN!” The referee 's count was lost in the crowd's cheers. He beckoned Bob from his corner and raised his gloved hand in victory.
Compare that with the following paragraph where I'll tell you the same story.
In the bout between Ruffian Ralph and Boxer Bob this evening, Boxer Bob withstood everything Ruffian threw at him until the last minute of the fifteenth round when Bob came to life and landed the winning uppercut that gave him the championship and the middleweight title. It's a summary in a single sentence, like a hurried TV news broadcaster trying to file the report before the next commercial.
If you're like me, you prefer the first story, the blow by blow account unfolds like watching Rocky Balboa in the Rocky film series. Also, please note that showing in this instance, takes more time, more space on the page. This is usually the case. Although the readers get the same basic information, showing provides descriptive details and permits time for not only tension to develop, but lets the characters and the story captivate their minds.
Telling, in it's most basic form, is perhaps best epitomized by the old Dragnet TV series where detective Joe Friday wants, “Just the facts, Ma'am, just the facts.”
But don't make the mistake of insisting that every passage be some action-packed drama. Give the reader a moment to rest. Narration, while telling, is a welcome rest for the reader and can move the story line forward at the same time. Choose a few adjectives and adverbs and sprinkle them judiciously while the reader rests in preparation for the next exciting bout of showing.
Chekhov is also connected to the modernist movement called the stream of consciousness, a literary style in which the reader is exposed to the ongoing thoughts, the emotional and psychological processes of the characters; it's often called the interior monologue. Every thought of one or more characters is presented to permit the reader to analyze what is going through the character's mind and understand what drives his actions, even though the character's thoughts may jump to completely unrelated subjects in the middle of this silent soliloquy. This style is like showing on meth and steroids. Not a single detail is considered too insignificant to include; but as the wealth of detail provided the reader is at first interesting, it quickly becomes overwhelming and counterproductive in advancing the story line. The best advice is to use interior monologue sparingly and to stay on subject. Some of the better known writers who have dared and succeeded in using this style are Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, James Joyce in Ulysses and William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury.
Bastard shot me The sonovabitch shot me in the stomach God that hurts Oh Christ look at all the blood on my shirt Where is he now Where's my gun My turn, damn you Get up Get up dammit My friggin legs won't move Gotta move He's gonna to kill me Is this how Dad felt when that yellow commie shot him in Korea It was winter then, cold and wet when he was shot Damned near froze to death he told us kids. He used to tell us that story all the―shit There he is He's pointing his gun at me again. Get down Get down Don't want to be shot again. Billy and me used to play G.I. Joe and we'd pretend to shoot each other and take turns falling down dead just like this but there weren't no blood Has anyone called an ambulance Where's the ambulance I need help A paramedic Look at all the blood I've Mom would whup me for all the blood I got on my shirt I see you there you dirty bastard Shoot him Shoot him quick There I got him I think I hit him. I don't think that deer I took last year bled this much A twelve pointer Looks good in the den Marie said she'd divorce me if I hung it there How many shots have I taken How much ammo do I have left Dad was real mad at me when he had to call 911 to rush me to the hospital that time when Am I gonna live Dear God don't let me die Wait did he just move I thought I got him Shoot him before you die Shoot the bastard. Kill him Oh Jesus please send an ambulance. Hasn't anyone called Is that you Billy Help me Billy Billy are you there
As you can see, stream of consciousness isn't for me. What I've learned is not to tell you I've fallen. I'll just show you the bruises on my ass.
There. I think I've got the hang of it.