Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

I have to admit, I’ve always been a little confused by the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’ – I mean, we’re authors, we work in a written (not visual) medium; the whole point of storytelling, is to to tell (see? it’s right there in the name).

But, then again, I do like Chekhov’s call to arms:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass

Okay, so say I do as you ask, Anton, and instead of writing:

It was a full moon.

I write:

A silver light glinted off broken glass.

It’s still telling, isn’t it? I’m still verbalising a visualisation, still passing on information as a seeing woman would to a blind man.

So what, reallyis the difference?

moonlight

One definitely has a more engaging voice – a poetic sensibility and sense of storytelling rather than mere telling. 

But, how far can we (should we) take it. What if, instead of writing:

She smiled.

I write:

The corners of her mouth twitched upwards.

Seems a little overdone, no? Like I’m now turning my back on my other literary hero, Hemingway, and using seven words when two would suffice.

Which bring us back to the original question: What really is the difference? What does ‘showing’ really mean?

My answer, after much consideration and consternation (and rewrites after rewrites of telling drafts and over-written drafts), is this:

It is not the poetry of description that identifies ‘showing’, it is the dominance of the active verb.

Telling uses passive verbs. Showing uses active verbs.

Passive verbs are those that are static and/or exist solely inside one’s head. The ‘to be’ verbs. The ‘thought’ (liked, remembered, desired, wished, despised, etc) verbs. (Chuck Palahniuk has a great post on eliminating thought verbs here).

Active verbs are dynamic, the ones you can actually observe and engage with.

Let’s look at the examples again and throw some more in for fun:

  • It was a full moon VS a silver light glinted off broken glass
  • She smiled VS the corners of her mouth twitched upwards
  • The box felt heavy VS the box settled in her arms like lead
  • She detested the zombie VS she aimed the rifle at the space between the zombie’s dead eyes
  • She ran to her mentor VS her feet thundered along the road to her mentor
  • Jasper was tired VS Jasper rubbed the sleep from his eyes with a weary hand.

 

If you’re up for it- why not join me in responding to Chuck’s challenge and start the process of eliminating passive verbs from your writing? Let me know how you’re going with it in the comments!

 

Image courtesy of Abbyladybug via Flickr Creative Commons

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Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

4 thoughts on “Show, don’t Tell – What it really means

  1. schillingklaus says:

    I prefer passive verbs as a reader, and this will not be changed by any of your trickery. Consequently, I will not be deterred by any amou nt of taste dictatorship from writing deliberately and proudly in atell-heavy manner, no mantter what.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hahah 🙂 No trickery, I promise! I’m not as pedantic on the whole ‘show, don’t tell’ rule as others, but I do find that too much ‘telling’ can give a sense of reading a plot outline or executive summary, rather than a *narrative*. Compare: Jasper was tired (passive verb) VS Jasper yawned (active verb) VS Jasper yawned. The night was cold and the chill always had a way of lulling him to sleep. (active, then passive, then active verb). As they say, variety is the spice of life…

      Like

  2. JA Andrews says:

    Mikhaeyla, I’m so glad you posted this.

    First, EVERY time I hear Show, Don’t Tell I have to rethink that whole explanation you went through here. You worded it beautifully.

    Second, I had read that article by Chuck long ago and had lost track of it. I’m so glad to have it again! I just got myself a journal that I’m keeping all important writing info it, and one page is “Writing Articles that I Don’t Want To Forget About.” I’m writing Chuck’s down quick before I forget it again!

    Like

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