‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass,’ Anton Chekhov.
Writers are constantly told to show, not tell, aren’t they?
Instead of telling the reader what happens, show them through action and dialogue. This is easier said than done, of course.
Telling is often more efficient and straightforward, while showing requires more skill. But, when done well, showing creates a much more immersive and effective story.
One classic example in fiction of show not tell comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. When Nick Carraway first meets Jay Gatsby, he tells you that Gatsby must have ‘looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening lenses’, which is a great image.
You don’t see Gatsby looking up at the sky; you only see him through Nick’s eyes. This allows Fitzgerald to give you a sense of Gatsby’s mystery and charisma without explicitly telling you about it.
I went to an immersive Van Gogh exhibition recently, and I could tell you how the main hall is set up to project the works of art and how the pieces move as if they’re alive.
Or I can explain how the boat rocked under me as I looked up at the starry night sky and the sunflower pollen tickled my nose as I lay in a field in the scorching sun.
If you read an article that’s full of facts, it might be an efficient way to communicate data, but without any real-life examples, the reader gets bored.
But if the writer tells you a few stories of how this information plays out in life, you’ll get the picture and be engaged enough to continue reading.
The writer finds a way to connect you, and metaphors and stories are a great way to draw you in.
Mary Catherine Bateson said, ’The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories’ and although you might think that nonfiction and blogs aren’t stories, everything is a story.
Stories are the way you make sense of the world and your day.
If you’re showing, use action verbs rather than passive ones. Chuck Palahniuk suggests cutting out all thought verbs, but that ain’t happening in my work as I mainly talk about how thought creates reality.
So, sorry, Chuck, I’m chucking that suggestion.
But show and tell doesn’t just apply to writing; as a coach, I ask my clients to show rather than tell.
Parenting is often a time when people tell rather than show. Who had a parent who said that you should, ‘do as I say and not as I do’ when you pointed out that your dad had just dropped his coat in a corner when he came in and then made a fuss about you hanging your coat up?
Young children copy their parents, so it’s a much better and easier way of getting them to do something if you do it yourself.
Rather than telling your child not to blow bubbles out of their nose, don’t do it yourself? Ok, you probably don’t do that, but you understand where I’m going with this.
If you don’t want your child to sit in front of a screen all evening, don’t do it yourself. You might think that because your screen is wall-mounted rather than a tablet, it’s different, but is it?
Showing your child how you would like them to behave is more likely to get the result you want than shrieking at them to do as they’re told.
The same goes for relationships. I’ve had clients tell me that they’re upset because their partner isn’t affectionate to them, and when I ask if they’re affectionate to their partner, they tell me no because they want to receive before they give.
Let’s think about that one? Because if their partner feels the same way, they’re not going to get very far.
As the old saying goes, ‘treat people the way you want to be treated’ to get the relationship you want.
I don’t mean this in a manipulative game-playing way, but if you want your partner to change, you have to change how you do things.
I’ve had so many clients tell me that the relationship would be great if only their partner changed, but they have as much chance of that as I have of winning the lottery — and, yes, I do still buy a ticket — the only way to get someone else to change is to change yourself.
But I don’t want to, you might say, I’m perfect as I am.
Yes, me too. But mostly, I’m the only one that thinks that.
When clients try out my suggestions and start to behave to their partners in a way that they want their partners to behave, they’re blown away by the results. Miraculously, when they’re affectionate to their partners, their partners act in a similar way.
Equally, when they’re cold and distant, guess what?
You know that getting a hug from someone is far more loving than someone shouting, ‘I love you’ in your face.
I went to see ‘The Woman in Black’ a few years ago with a friend and her husband. I don’t know if you’ve seen the play, but the first half is like listening to a radio play. Not much happens, and there are few characters.
But this is a ploy to build the tension. When we took our seats for the second half, the feeling had changed and the suspense built up to such a pitch that when a rocking chair started rocking of its own accord, my friend’s husband screamed.
This was pure gold for the theatre owners as almost everyone else screamed too.
And the scene was wordless.
Imagine if someone had been talking about feeling a presence or spirit? The audience would have gone along with the idea but not felt the fear that a single rocking chair evoked.
And how about the ballet? Even if you don’t know the story, you get carried away by the visuals. Yes, the music helps too, but the emotion comes from what you see visually.
So next time you’re tempted to take the easy way out and just tell someone what you’re thinking, whether that’s in writing or life, remember it’s always better to show, not tell.