Storyline: Show & Tell

Christian Bale as Batman.

Show, don’t tell.

It’s one of the staples of writing and is actually one of the more solid pieces of advice to follow. The reason for it is to aid the writer in focusing on subtlety — the reader hardly gets enjoyment out of being told a characters feelings and thoughts directly e.g. John was sad.

When you focus on expressing characters feelings, or even, the atmosphere of the setting in more complex and indirect forms it allows you to not only develop your vocabulary but also become more in tune with discovering your “voice” as a writer. And of course, tell a story in a more interesting fashion.

Eventually, like all rules, there comes a point where they start to break down. What happens with show, don’t tell is that your writing starts to become very one-sided — you’re great at writing complex and detailed prose but you’re reader is not getting anything out of it. Basically, you’re not telling them anything.

This is part of the evolution of becoming an artist though. It’s actually a sign you’re on the right path — hitting walls and learning how to climb or smash through them is necessary to reach new grounds.

This is where the title of this article comes in.

Oh yeah, and the point of using a screenshot of The Prestige (dope film) as the main photo.

And this one too! Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

What separates a magician from someone who simply knows how to do a few magic tricks is the showmanship. The ability to truly entertain a crowd not just with the trick itself but also the narrative at which they bring with it.

Think of some of the greats — Copperfield, Pen & Teller, Houdini. What is one thing that they were masters at?

Showing and telling.

While they lead your eyes with the trick in front of you, they’re telling you a story to go along with it. Something to influence how you perceive the trick and what your ultimate reaction is to it. It’s a way of guiding you to the intended end point.

For writers, the goal is the same. Showing in your prose is great but you still need to tell your audience the important information that ties it all together. And it takes practice — lots and lots of practice just as it would to master a specific trick for a magician. It’s a matter of finding the right balance between the two because us writers are like magicians — guiding our audience through a narrative with hopes of leaving them wowed by the end.

Here’s a perfect example of Penn & Teller utilizing show and tell:

Now, when it comes to prose, it doesn’t necessarily need to be as elaborate or intricate as demonstrated by Penn & Teller (and of course they have the advantage of video). But there in lies the beauty of writing; simplicity works in your favor.

As you begin to hone your craft more precisely, you can start figuring out ways to provide vivid imagery while still telling your audience what’s going on without having to be too on the nose about it.

Take the opening line from The Gunslinger by Stephen King:

“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”

The word choice is essentially perfect here — by choosing “fled” over “galloped”, “ran”, or any other similar words, King is telling us that these two characters are in conflict without actually saying it. King is also showing us a lot here. We don’t simply see just two men moving along a space — we see the vast desert and two men with distinct wardrobe.

So how are ways you can achieve this? Besides trial and error, you can start by choosing to either show or tell. Focus on just one and see how far you can get. Then as you revise, start incorporating the other aspect of the rule until you find the right balance of the two.

Great writing always does a masterful job of juggling between these two forms. In some cases, it’s more appropriate to show while in other cases just getting straight to the point is better. In other words, it’s okay to say John as two cats rather than spend two pages saying the same thing.


Thanks for reading! And check out my previous Storyline article Second Draft Struggles.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.