Part 3: Show, Don’t Tell -Summary (The story within the story).
Show, Don’t Tell:
(If you have just landed on this post, you may wish to start from part 1, but I have summarised all parts here for the readers convenience.)
It is Chekhov who has been attributed as first explaining this technique (show, don’t tell) and in a letter to his brother he wrote the following:
“In descriptions of nature, one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”
This technique engages you and in expressing specific emotions, human senses and events, you experience what is happening in the writing and thus bonding the words with your interest.
For myself, the best way I’ve found to make this a habit is to think what’s ‘the story, within the story’?
So a boy is walking down the street, but what is he feeling, thinking or fearing?
The simple story is to tell the reader what he is doing, but the story within that is a whole world of emotions, details, and evocation. A world that can be missed out on if you only tell.
So now, I always write with this in consideration and if I think the sentence is lacking depth, I consider what is the ‘story within the story.’
Example: The first sentence below tells the reader he got scared, but what’s the story within that line?
- He got scared.
- His stomach churned and his chest felt so tense he can barely breathe.
It’s the second sentence that paints a picture of what the character is feeling and the reader is not told a cold fact, but details are described and this is where you engage their interest.
Note: When I say, what’s ‘story within the story.’ I don’t mean tell me a short story about the sentence, but I mean the story of the feelings, emotions and thoughts that connect to those specific words.
Below is a summary of parts 1 to 2 of show, don’t tell.
Show, Don’t Tell: With the addition of a few simple details, such as by adding senses, feelings or thoughts, you can greatly develop a sentence.
Thus giving it the depth that is required to draw in the reader and to clearly express yourself.
I started below by randomly writing a simple sentence and then by giving it a little thought I developed it and wrote the second sentence.
- The boy walked down the street towards his grandmother’s house.
- The boy, dragging his feet along the pavement, approached his grandmother’s house with sweaty palms and trepidation, for the fear of kisses and ruffled hair was increasing with each step.
The term, ‘show, don’t tell,’ is a vital part of the writers armoury and creates engagement with the reader that otherwise would not exist.
The crux of it is that you are describing feelings, thoughts or events, and you are not just telling the reader.
By ‘showing’ there are a couple of factors that come into play. The first that there is more detail in the writing and the second that the sentences engage with the reader on a human level.
This, human level, means that you draw them into your story by articulating thoughts on the page. This paints a picture that they can see in their mind.
Below is an example with the first sentence that tells and doesn’t show, and the second sentence that, shows and doesn’t tell.
- The cat sat on a wall next to a strange garden and stared into the air.
- A metallic whiff caught the cats nose, but it did not cast an eye over the array of mechanical contraptions, broken and rusting that were sprawled on the lawn. Instead, the cat gazed into the air and enjoyed the breeze.
It is important to note you should not include detail that isn’t required. The detail in the second sentence will relate to how the story unfolds around a cat that has no curiosity or perhaps no curiosity in this instance for a specific reason. Hence the detail is to the point and good to include.
One final point regarding
show, don’t tell – is that writers will just tell the reader a detail. It is not an absolute rule to always show, as opposed to telling, and balancing out how your sentences are written is key to using both show and tell effectively.
For example, you may wish to just tell the reader an action to keep the scene pacing moving quickly and this is perfectly acceptable.
It would be great to hear your own practice sentences in relation to this topic. Please post them in the comments section if wish or if you have any comments or suggestions for my practice sentences please do say.