New writers are often told, “Show, don’t tell.” Normally this piece of advice is given when a writer gives a vague description. He might say, “Rhonda looked tired.” A good reader will wonder about that. There are varying degrees of tiredness. Does the writer mean that the character had a blank expression on her face, or does he mean that she is staggering blindly and ready to fall?
So the adage “Show, don’t tell” is used to beg for more information. Yet I’ve always felt that that advice is . . . imprecise.
You see, many writers, when they hear that, will begin to write cinematically. They begin describing the world as if seen from a camera, which swings this way and that. They might show you how Rhonda looks, but they forget to involve the rest of the senses. How fatigued does her voice sound? When the protagonist grabs her arm to keep her upright, what does it feel like when she sags against him? What does fatigue smell like?
More importantly, people who write cinematically lose contact with their protagonist as a viewpoint character. They forget to relate how the protagonist feels about Rhonda’s tiredness. Are they worried for her? Do they hurt for her? What inner dialog does this lead to?
And if you’re writing cinematically, you tend to lose your consciousness of time. You start showing actions without thinking too much about what went before or what will come after. If Rhonda has been working herself to death at the hospital, one must wonder what drives her. Why does she want to save the world? What crushing blow in her life has led her on a self-destructive course?
So I always hate the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s weak. It’s flippant. Most of the people who utter it have never really considered what it means.
Among the Welsh, a poet was called a Maker. The idea was that with words he could create illusions that were so deep, so profound, that it was as if he were bringing his dreams to life. When a Maker describes a stream, you can hear the babbling of the brook as water goes rolling over stones. You can taste the mist rising from limpid pools on the back of your tongue, see the sunlight on autumn leaves. As you kneel to drink, water striders dart through your imagination.
When a Maker tells a tale, he doesn’t just explain what emotions a character feels. He’s not satisfied with just “showing” the emotion by describing it accurately. The writer takes stock of all of the senses–movement, emotion, sight, sound, taste, touch–and gets deep into the inner thoughts of his characters in order to bring the tale to life. His goal is to make you experience the tale. His goal is to bring you into the tale so forcefully, that you live through it.
Don’t tell. Don’t show. Make.