Show don’t tell

Chekhov, now there’s a big name. Of course, we all know and respect his work. Without his deft navigation skills the USS Enterprise would have been pointing in the wrong direction all through the first few series of Star Trek.

Apparently there was some other guy called Chekhov before him though – he was much less well known, more literary, and didn’t provide me with an opportunity to include the term Star Trek in my blog tags, but he did know a thing or two about writing.

anton_checkovThough Anton Chekhov was rightly lauded for his plays – The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters and so on, the 19th Century Russian writer was also master of the short story and he provided one of my favourite quotes about writing.

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

What’s that all about then? Well basically what he’s summing up in powerful and poetic fashion is what has come to be known as ‘show don’t tell.’ That’s a technique much beloved of creative writing courses where would be writers are encouraged, for example, to focus not on telling the reader directly what a character is feeling, but instead on showing the reader things which allow him to make his own mind up.

For what it’s worth, my view on this is that a better phrase would be ‘show and tell’. The trouble with being prescriptive in writing is that it excludes  – and while excluding some terrible writing it might also exclude some great, experimental work.

So it never does to be too closed minded. Still, it’s a useful point to bear in mind I think, show don’t tell.

Whether you are describing moonlight or a character’s state of mind, the route one, blunt description is likely to be less involving, less evocative for the reader, than showing them something which draws them into the text and allows them to decide for themselves what is going on. Do it that way and you have given them a stake in the action – you have made the reader part of the story.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

13 thoughts on “Show don’t tell”

  1. Chris, I wrote a comment just now, but I think I forgot to complete the WordPress login so it’s disappeared. Just wanted to say I love your blog because it always gives me points on which to ponder. Todays pondering? That this ‘show and not tell’ is good advice, but maybe easier for a dramatist who has actors and a set to show things for him. In writing, you can show a lot if you are very skillful about how you choose your words, but it’s harder and maybe that’s why many of us fall into the over description trap. I think I am guilty of that when it comes to scenes I want to evoke, but interestingly, I rarely describe my characters or what they are wearing unless it is important to the story. Maybe a reflection of where my interests lie 🙂

    1. Yes – I think the show not tell thing really comes into its own when it comes to exploring characters and makes them tick. It’s often a lot more powerful to show a character acting in a way motivated by anger say – rather than just writing ‘X was angry.’

      1. Yes. “He raised an eyebrow” can say far more about sarcasm, scepticism and superiority than describing it. Haha, I didn’t mean to do all that alliteration – honest 🙂

  2. Yes, this is one of the hardest things to remember when you’re writing. I am guilty of it all the time and have to catch myself and fix. I am sure there are plenty of places in my book where I need to go back in and change this in descriptions. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. nice post Chris. I think it can be a tricky departure for ex-newspaper people to follow this method when they’re used to fact-laden stories/features. Very applicable to all writers though.

  4. This is great advice and a new perception of it which is very helpful. I’m a young and aspiring writer, but find it difficult to express what my characters are feeling and how close I might be to telling rather than showing!
    Would you have any advice for a writer just starting out with very little experience?
    I look forward to reading more of your blog and soon your novel!

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