If you’ve spent more than about half an hour with a writing instructor, you’ve probably heard that old chestnut, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s not terrible advice, but it’s incomplete advice. Nobody wants you to only show and never tell. They just want you to show more than you probably do and to tell less than you probably do. But it’s much pithier to say “show, don’t tell.”
Why do writing instructors want you to show more and tell less? It comes down, I think, to the difference between concrete language and abstract language. Left to our own devices, most of us tend toward abstraction, away from the world of sights and sounds and smells and toward ideas, explanations, commentaries, interpretations, summaries, etc. When you “show” in a piece of writing, you have no choice but to use concrete, sensory language. That’s what “showing” means.
But if showing is always concrete, that doesn’t mean telling is always abstract. There are ways to introduce concrete, sensory language into your telling so that on those (rather frequent) occasions when it makes sense to get “tell-y,” you can still keep your prose close to the earth, not floating off into the realms of abstraction. I’ll be using some passages from Flannery O’Connor to show how this works. O’Connor has a well-deserved reputation for being great at showing a scene, but she was also a brilliant “teller,” as you will see.
First, some working definitions
How do you know whether you’re showing or telling? Here’s an easy way to show the difference: imagine there is a video camera set up in the space where your scene takes place. Showing is anything the video camera could capture—dialogue, movements, gestures, expressions, straightforward description of the physical facts of a scene. Showing is strictly a matter of sensory impressions. Technically speaking, “Leonard is angry” is not showing because a video camera can’t see anger. A video camera can see a man with a red face pounding his fist on the table and shouting. It’s a short step, of course, from those physical, sensory cues to the judgment “That man is angry,” but it’s helpful to keep in mind the difference between sensory information and interpretation of sensory information (which gets into the realm of telling). Smells, tastes, and textures count as showing, by the way, because they are sensory information—in spite of the fact that a video camera can’t smell taste or feel.
Besides those strictly sensory impressions, everything else a writer can do is telling. Telling includes:
- Background information
- Descriptions of a character’s inner life (thoughts feelings, etc.)
- Commentary by the narrator
- Skipping forward or backward in time
I’m sure I’m leaving something off that list, but I’m not terribly worried about it. You only have to remember that anything a video camera can capture (plus smells, tastes, and textures) is showing. Everything else you do as a writer is telling. (You can read more but this idea in this issue of The Habit Weekly from 2018.
While we’re at it, we should probably talk about the difference between the concrete and the abstract. Concrete things are things that you can perceive with your five senses—things you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. Abstractions are things that you cannot perceive with your five senses, including ideas, concepts, and emotions. Tricycles, squirrels, convenience stores, and plumbers are all concrete. Friendship, justification, trigonometry, and sadness are all abstract.
Telling doesn’t have to be abstract.
If you look at the bulleted list above, telling encompasses a lot of what you’re interested in doing as a writer. Taking “Show, don’t tell” too seriously would cut you (and your readers) off from a lot of important opportunities.
But before you give yourself too much permission to “Tell, don’t show,” consider one of the biggest challenges faced by the teller. Whereas showing always attempts to place the reader in the room where a scene is happening, telling always pulls the reader out of the room where the scene is happening. It might pull the reader into a character’s head or into the narrator’s world of explanation and commentary, or into a time and place outside the present moment, where important background information is found. One way to deal with that challenge is to find ways to insert concrete imagery into your more tell-y passages.
Flannery O’Connor is so concrete in her storytelling that sometimes you don’t even notice that you aren’t in the room where the action is happening. Here is the opening of “Good Country People”:
Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came to a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other, was no longer there in spirit.
Most of the time, O’Connor starts her stories in-scene. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” we’re on the porch with the Craters watching Mr. Shifltet come up the drive. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” we’re at the breakfast table with the Grandmother, Bailey Boy, and the rest of the family, watching the grandmother try to talk them into going to Tennessee for their vacation instead of Florida. But here at the start of “Good Country People,” we’re not in a particular space or a particular time. The narrator is telling us some things we need to know about Mrs. Freeman—essentially, providing background information—but we aren’t being pulled into a scene yet. A video camera couldn’t capture anything that O’Connor describes in these sentences. But still, there’s a lot to look at in these sentences, isn’t there? Most of that visual quality comes from the two similes: the extended simile of the truck barreling down the road, following the yellow line, and the simile of the grain sacks thrown on top of one another. That earthy, hefty image of the grain sacks is especially effective in concealing the fact that we aren’t in the room with Mrs. Freeman and won’t be in the room with her (or with anybody else) until the fifth page of the story!
Another very common mode of telling is to eavesdrop on a character’s thoughts and feelings. This is effectively a movement from the outward, physical world where the character lives and moves and has her being into that character’s inner world. The temptation when you make that move is to leave behind the physical facts of the outward world (trees, squirrels, convenience stores) for the abstractions that describe our inner movements (fear, love, courage). One trick I learned from Flannery O’Connor—a trick that is surprisingly easy to implement—is to attach those inward thoughts and feelings to physical, concrete, specific facts. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Grandmother decides to smuggle her cat Pitty Sing into the car for the family vacation. Here’s why:
She didn’t intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of the gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself.
In that moment we are pulled out of the car where the Grandmother is sitting, and into the Grandmother’s imaginary world. But instead of abstractions like fear and loneliness and imagination run wild, we get something to look at: a cat brushing up against gas burners and asphyxiating himself.
A relatively common maneuver in Flannery O’Connor’s stories is to provide background information by way of eavesdropping on a character’s thoughts—a double-whammy of telliness. Watch how she executes this maneuver in “Greenleaf.” Mrs. May is looking at a bull through her bedroom window and reflecting on her career as a landowner:
For fifteen years, she thought as she squinted at him fiercely, she had been having shifltess people’s hogs root up her oats, their mules wallow on her lawn, their scrub bulls breed her cows.
Again, this is all out-of-scene. The things depicted in this sentence are not the things Mrs. May sees when she squints through her window. But because we have very specific things to look at—hogs rooting up oats, mules wallowing on lawns, scrub bulls conducting themselves badly—we hardly notice that this is telling rather than showing.
“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is made up of five or six incredibly well-depicted scenes. When I teach what it means to “show” in storytelling, the scenes in this story are among my favorite to discuss. But getting from one well-rendered scene to the next well-rendered scene requires some telling—especially if those scenes are separated in time. There’s no good way to “show” the intervening time; it has to be summarized. And summarizing is a variety of telling. Here’s how O’Connor turns the clock ahead a few weeks:
Mr. Shiftlet slept on the hard narrow back seat of the car with his feet out the side window. He had his razor and a can of water on a crate that served him as a bedside table and he put up a piece of mirror against the back glass and kept his coat neatly on a hanger that he hung over one of the windows.
In the evenings he sat on the steps and talked while the old woman and Lucynell rocked violently in their chairs on either side of him. The old woman’s three mountains were black against the dark blue sky and were visited off and on by various planets and by the moon after it had left the chickens.
My point here is that even though telling can be vague and/or abstract, you always have the option of including concrete specifics, no matter what kind of telling you are doing.
I want to finish with an example from “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” In the bulleted list above, I mentioned that one mode of telling is the narrator’s commentary on the characters or their actions. When we first see Julian on the fist page of “Everything Rises,” he is waiting for his mother to get dressed so he can ride with her to her reducing class at the Y. The narrator remarks that “he, his hands behind him, appeared pinned to the doorframe, waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to start piercing him.” (Here you can see the painting of the martyr Saint Sebastian that O’Connor is referencing.)
This is telling, of course; a video camera could see that Julian is standing b the doorframe with his hands behind his back, but it couldn’t see that he looked like a martyr. The tell-y narrator could have said by way of commentary, “Julian felt like a martyr” or “Julian looked like a martyr,” but consider how much more specific and vivid that comment becomes with that highly specific, highly visualizable image, “waiting like Saint Sebastian for the arrows to start piercing him.”
Notice how that image engages your judgment as a reader. You read that Julian looked like Saint Sebastian, and even if you aren’t familiar with the painting you think, “Juiian sounds like some kind of martyr.” That specific image comes to you through the sensing part of your brain, and then the judging part of your brain goes to work…the way things work in the real world where you live.
At its worst, telling shuts down the reader’s judgment by doing all the work of interpretation. Giving your reader something to look at, even in tell-y passages, is one way to keep your reader’s judgment engaged.