Show Not Tell

2013-12-04 11.56.49Which version would grab your attention?


As she entered the restaurant he was surprised to see her.  He felt guilty that he’d been caught on a date with another woman, especially one he didn’t fancy.  He feared his marriage could be over.

Or this:

As she entered the restaurant, pain prickled behind his eyes like a thousand tiny needles. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be miles away, tied up in meetings, entertaining clients; not sweeping, refined and elegant, through the sort of scruffy bistro they would never visit together,  to catch him with his pants down.  Or as good as. 

As the wrecking ball of his betrayal surged towards him, the woman across the table – what was her name? – yabbered on and on like a drumming bunny, blistering his ears.  He could see the chewed food between her teeth as she talked and her knife and fork screeched against the cheap crockery like fingernails on a chalkboard.  She wasn’t pretty or chic.  There was no subtlety in the satin bow that peeked out between grotesquely inflated breasts, nor the scrape of her grimy toes probing and poking at his ankles beneath the table.  He realised he neither wanted nor needed the sex that was palpably on offer.

He pleaded with the napkin on his lap for inspiration; he needed a credible explanation.  What possible reason could he have for being seated at a table dressed with a paper sheet and a dribbling candle in a bottle, with a woman whose name he couldn’t even recall?  All the while, his wife, his beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated wife, glided towards them, her eyes wide, lips taut, the hint of blood flaming across her décolletage. 

His heart rattled beneath his breastbone. This time there was no wriggling out of it.  The demise of his marriage was knocking on the door.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass” Anton Chekhov

23 thoughts on “Show Not Tell

  1. Generally the second version but it’s all to do with context. If the preceding and following passages were of a similar style, it could become too much and slow the story to a crawl. Showing is generally best, but not always.

    1. Good point indeed – since it’s not clear whether this piece is part of a novel-length story, or a short story. As it happens, it’s just an exercise and it might have been either. But you’re right, it’s important to keep up the pace and not bog the reader down in too much of anything. Even ‘showing’ can get a bit annoying if there’s too much of it. I thought I might get away with a couple of paragraphs just for the sake of making a point!

      1. You made a great point and it was a really good exercise. You can get so much more out of showing (for example, from the second passage you start to gain an insight into the man’s not so nice opinion of women, something completely missing from the first passage.) Showing is also excellent through omission (the man is worried about his marriage because of how it affects him, not necessarily because of the hurt he will cause, another sign of his character.)

        1. Whilst it’s a rough piece of writing, these are certainly some of the things that I too feel come out of the ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ focus. As for writing exercises in general, it’s weird what emerges when you trundle off into the middle-distance with a timer, a pen and no idea of where you’re going. I feel I should perhaps try this more in life… (although perhaps without the timer). 🙂

  2. Yes, that was going to be my comment: the second version is a little long. Depends of course: if it is the central scene in the book, then go with it, but if it is just one of many scenes of equal or greater importance, it might feel a little long-winded.

    1. You’re right of course. But this little piece wasn’t anything, as it happens – just a couple of paragraphs of free-writing, fresh from my notepad this morning while I was deep in the act of procrastinating myself away from my day-job. Perhaps I should delete this post before any passing agents or publishers stumble upon it. 🙂

        1. Me too – and that’s why I try to maintain a free-writing or prompted 15-minute writing exercise habit. But I’m not much better at this, than I am at exercising gym-style! Every now and again however, I find I’ve written something which makes me think about either a story idea, or a setting or character, or, as in this case, a writing ‘rule’. I’m just delighted it’s prompting some debate.

  3. I want to know what happens in the second version! Not too fussed about reading more of the first; your point is a good one 🙂

    1. It’s all about making the reader engage with working out what’s going on, who is feeling what, and so on. As with many things in life, if they come about too easily – as they do when a reader is told rather than shown – there’s no reason for the reader to engage, and little satisfaction in the read. As to what happens in the second version… I’m afraid I have no idea, because that’s where it stopped when my 15 minutes ran out!

  4. Great example of the values of showing. The second one is definitely more interesting. However, as mentioned above, it also depends on the style of the rest of the writing. The second one is a bit long and slow to read.

    It amazes me, still, the differences between just telling the reader something versus giving descriptions of every detail and how much more alive it sounds.

    1. Yes, the show version is certainly longer than ideal, but (in my defence, m’lud) it was just an exercise. In general, showing brings things alive more effectively than telling, and makes the reader work harder, and therefore appreciate more. Telling doesn’t need to be as long-winded as in this exercise – just one or two details will be enough in most cases, to reveal character, motivation, setting, emotion.

    1. The whole point of a good story is that it takes you away into your imagination and for that to be effective, you can’t hand your readers everything on a plate. They need to see glimpses of character, not be told exactly who someone is; they need to be able to realise things for themselves – because when they do, they appreciate it all the more. My writing buddies and I are always talking about the need to trust the reader to be able to work things out, and avoid telling/spelling everything out for them.

  5. I liked the second bit better my friend. The only thing I have a problem with is your description of his beautiful wife, and then that of the “other” woman who seemingly is much less attractive. If indeed that is the case why bother? If a man is going to cheat (why is he married?) she should be at least as good looking as his wife if not better. The whole situation troubles me some, however that’s what your writing is supposed to do right, make me think and fell? Nes pa?

    1. I love that you so often have an alternative take on my blog posts. You’re the only person (so far…) to have commented on the content/characterisation rather than the style of the piece. And you raise interesting points. This particular piece was an exercise, on-the-hoof and not particularly analysed in the writing; however your remarks raised questions in my own mind as to how I perceive this kind of scenario. If we’re talking about the character of the betrayer/errant husband, I see him as the kind of person who has indulged in his potential adultery not because the woman is more, or better than his wife in any way, but because she is available. I may be betraying my own cynicism when I say the reason a man might have an affair is not because he’s dissatisfied with his marriage or his wife, but because a situation – an opportunity – presents itself. Hmm.. scope for debate?

  6. If you missed out the words “on a date” in the first, then I would be much more intrigued by that version – because it leaves the sense of mystery in place. The second is a great piece of writing (except for the image of the pain prickling behind the eyes, perhaps) but I think you give the reader too much detail. And I doubt all these thoughts/emotions would crowd in so fast – I envisage more of a missed heart beat or three, and a gut reaction: “hell’s teeth, I’ve been caught out.” Or not, depending on what the situation was really about…

    1. I do appreciate your feedback. So many people have expressed the feeling that the second ‘show’ piece is too detailed – and I can hardly argue. As an exercise, it was supposed to illustrate the contrast between the two approaches. It’s not part of anything more comprehensive, just a single, isolated moment, envisaged and then – I accept all feedback – flogged to within an inch of its life! What’s interesting is the point the feedback I’ve received makes about editing. It’s easy to become so immersed in ones own writing, that we fail to realise how much is ‘too much’. The pain process I’ve been going through over recent months, in editing my novel has shown me how achieving the right level of detail is a delicate balancing act. Too little detail, and the reader isn’t engaged… but too much, and the same reader will be irritated or bored.

  7. Yes, you are absolutely right. I try, but it’s difficult, to discipline myself to leave a piece of writing, go off and do something else and then revisit the piece to take a dispassionate, fresh look at it. It can take enormous willpower to do it, but I am sometimes sobered by my second thoughts…

    My view is that there is arguably a bit too much in the first paragraph you wrote: the purpose being to intrigue and tantalize the reader, drawing him/her in to read more. This works best in an opening para (if that’s how you envisage this one) – though, against that, nothing could be more powerful than the way Hilary Mantel opens “Wolf Hall” – that is graphic, to say the least.

    1. It always amazes me how differently a piece of writing appears if one goes away and leaves it for a few weeks. Things that look wonderful at first writing can seem excruciating when read with the benefit of a little distance!

      I don’t know the opening of Wolf Hall – I shall check it out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s