Show Don’t Tell

If you listen to the PubCrawl podcast with me and Kelly, we often talk about the concept of “showing, not telling.” It’s one of those pieces of advice that’s constantly thrown out, but how is not often discussed. PubCrawl alumna Sooz wrote a great post about Show vs. Tell on the macro and micro levels, and current contributor Kat Zhang also wrote a post about When Show, When to Tell.

The general consensus is that a mix of showing and telling is necessary to get us through a story, and I agree, although I would venture to say that showing reinforces telling. What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that if “telling” is your thesis about a character or a situation, then “showing” is your evidence.

To put it another way, an example Kelly and I have brought up is the what we call The Problem of Ginny Weasley. We are told a lot of things about Ginny, but those qualities that we are told she has aren’t necessarily supported by the actual text itself. In fact, for much of the books, Ginny is sidelined from the action (most notably in Deathly Hallows, when Ginny is never shown battling, and the one instance we’re about to see her face Bellatrix, her mother steps in and does the job for her). We don’t see enough of Ginny for us to connect who we’re told she is to who we believe she is.

The best way to show anything about a character is through action and reaction. The way a character reacts to situations and people is just as important as the choices they make. The more a character does—speaks, moves, acts—the more we see.

Dialogue is often the easiest way to “show” in writing. By pairing what a character says with a character movement, you can convey very quickly what sort of person this character is (especially if the character movement is in contrast or at odds with what the character is saying). A fantastic example of this is actually the scene in Goblet of Fire where Rita Skeeter interviews Harry in a broom cupboard:

“Testing…my name is Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter.”

Harry looked down quickly at the [Quick-Quotes] quill. The moment Rita Skeeter had spoken, the green quill had started to scribble, skidding across the parchment:

Attractive blonde Rita Skeeter, forty-three, whose savage quill has punctured many inflated reputations—

Rowling is actually a master of the “show, don’t tell” (which is why Ginny Weasley remains such a problem) because she litters her books with carefully chosen details about every character, even the tertiary ones. These are all “telling” details, and yet together, they show us a complete picture of the person about whom she’s writing. It’s the difference between being told that Rita Skeeter is an unscrupulous reporter always on the lookout for a scoop, and understand that this woman with three gold teeth, two-inch scarlet nails, elaborate and curiously rigid curls, and a crocodile purse can unabashedly trash a great wizard to his face with no qualms.

Over and over again, I always come back to specificity being the key to great writing. That’s really what “show, don’t tell” means. Be specific.

That’s all from me! What do y’all think about “Show Don’t Tell?” Sound off in the comments!

One Response to Show Don’t Tell

  1. Sophie May 4 2016 at 6:20 pm #

    Not a hugely constructive comment, but when I read about the Ginny Weasley problem, I had a complete light bulb moment. I have always wanted to like Ginny, felt like I should like her, but always found her really flat and uninteresting….because I never see her doing anything! Thanks for clearing up over ten years of confusion haha. Interesting article!

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