Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Show Don't Tell: Part I (or Cormac McCarthy versus Virginia Woolf)

I've always been told to show and not to tell. Teachers, writer's group members, writing buddies have always mentioned this. Show don't tell! So, that's what I tried to do for a long time. When someone felt embarrassed, I had them turn red. When someone was angry, they crossed their arms or stomped away. Sad? Shed a tear! And then, along came Mary Yukari Waters. She's the author of the critically acclaimed short story collection The Laws Of Evening and her stories were included in The Best American Short Stories anthology two years in a row. I had the chance to take a class with her at UCLA, and she taught us a very different lesson in showing versus telling. It's a long lesson, so I'm going to break it up into two parts. And, to give you a preview, the rule, as I see it, is not "Show Don't Tell," but "When to show, and when to tell." Because, indeed, there is a time and place for both, and Cormac McCarthy and Virginia Woolf will help me to explain in Part II.

First off, let's be clear on what exactly showing and telling are. Most people don't really have a clear view of this. I didn't until just a few months ago, even though I somehow managed to please my reviewers. Telling is different from summarizing. I think that's the biggest misconception. Saying that someone hiked up a mountain isn't telling, it's showing. But, of course, you can show with different amounts of detail. Someone might say the line, "She hiked up a mountain," is telling because we don't experience this character hiking up a mountain. So, we can include the dirt and the trees and the blisters on her feet and the mosquitos. We can include the trickling rivers and the birds and the altitude sickness. We can include the kindly sherpa who is eyeing her in a less-than-wholesome way. That might make someone content, but another reader might ask for more. What did the mosquito sound like? How old was the Sherpa? Description of concrete details can have several iterations, but this is more of a question of degree. And, it all falls under the category of showing. Telling, on the other hand, occurs when a writer includes passages that can't be observed directly. This would include things like sadness, anger, confusion, lust.

So, let's define terms. We'll say that showing details are all those things that can be captured by a video camera or some other analytical device. Sights, smells, textures, sounds, all of that stuff is showing. Telling details are all those things that can't be captured by a machine: feelings and thoughts. "She turned red" is showing. "She was embarrassed" is telling. "He ate the entire pizza," is showing. "He was hungry," is telling. Got it? More tomorrow!


  1. An excellent post! I must admit that most of my re-writing and revising is based on taking out telling and adding in more showing.

  2. Hi Beth,

    Well, that may be the perfect thing depending on your style. I'd love your opinion on Part II!


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