Show & Tell 101.

Anyone who’s ever taken a creative writing class has been subjected to this admonition: “Show, don’t tell.” What exactly does that mean, though? Most creative writing teachers that I’ve had pull the old “Show, don’t tell” out of their hat when they can’t think of what else to say, and very few of them have given an example. They’ve been guilty of telling, not showing.

Let’s take a simple example:

Jack was nervous.

And you’re probably thinking, “So what?” I’ve told you Jack was nervous. You don’t know why he was nervous, and you probably don’t care. Let’s try that again:

Jack fidgeted. He sat down, got up again, then walked in circles around the room.

Now, hopefully, I’ve got you interested. Admittedly I’ve taken one simple sentence of three words and turned it into a simple sentence and a complex sentence of fifteen words, but if I’ve got your attention the expense is minimal. This isn’t just me telling you how someone feels; it’s encouraging you to use your senses. It’s what “Show, don’t tell” means. This may seem pretty basic, but the basics are what people often forget, and the building blocks are what teachers often skip over. Even the masters forget the basics sometimes. A classic example is the short story “The Open Window” by Saki (the pen name of H.H. Munro). I think every Seventh Grade reading anthology printed since World War I, so most of us are familiar with the outline: Framton Nuttel, whose doctors have advised him “complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise” is sitting in a parlor with a young girl while waiting to meet her aunt. The young girl starts telling him about a great tragedy that happened to her aunt. The aunt’s husband and two brothers went off hunting and disappeared in a bog. She explains that the reason her aunt has the French window open on an October evening is because that it happened “three years ago to a day,” and the aunt believes one day her husband will return. Just as she finishes her story and her aunt comes down the husband and two brothers come walking onto the lawn with their hunting dog alongside. Mr. Nuttel thinks he’s seeing ghosts and runs out. When the aunt is surprised that the man ran out so quickly, the girl explains,

“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”

At this point we get the joke, and the story should end here. Unfortunately Saki has to add one more line: “Romance at short notice was her speciality.” As if we weren’t smart enough to figure that out. This last line deflates the story like someone telling a joke then, after the punch line, explaining it. Let’s check back with Jack.

He stopped and looked up at the clock. His wife was late.

There are exceptions to every rule. You can “see” Jack stopping and looking at the clock, but I have to “tell” you his wife is late. Sometimes it’s okay to tell. Sometimes it’s even necessary, if only for economy’s sake. I could pile up details: Jack twisting his wedding ring on his finger, Jack checking the clock constantly, Jack going to the window every time a car goes by. Depending on the story these details might be very effective. Then again they might be a distraction. It depends on the story. If our story is about Jack getting increasingly frantic about where his wife is then we want details about what he’s doing. If our story is about what’s happened to make Jack’s wife late now might be the time to move on and check on what’s happened to her. I leave that to you. Make up your own romance at short notice.