Showing Show and Tell


Showing Show and Tell

In another post on The Life of Pi, I discussed how the director of that movie gave us a powerful example of the power of show. Let’s look at the uses and effects of ‘show’ and ‘tell.’

‘Tell’ has its uses

Say you are inclined to write something like this:

He listened intently to the orders. He felt his throat tighten at the thought of what Serena told him to do. It was immoral and probably illegal. But he didn’t feel as if he had a choice. He felt as if the walls were closing in.

So, gets across the point that he (let’s call him Matthew) is very unhappy. Efficient way to do it. ‘Tell’ is useful if you need to establish some not very important point in the narrative but which the reader must nevertheless know. But this scene doesn’t seem to be one of these.

The power of show

Let’s rewrite the passage using more ‘show.’

“I can’t do that!” Matthew protested. “Come on, Serena, that’s practically, practically…”

“What, Matthew?” Serena turned the corners of her mouth up but her eyes didn’t change. “Illegal, immoral, unethical, all of the above?”

“I can’t, Serena, I just can’t.” He felt as if the walls were closing in on him.

Serena flipped away his protest. “And yet, you don’t really have a choice, do you?”

See, ‘show’ gives you a much better idea of who the characters are and how they interact. ‘Tell’ is like a semi-transparent screen you put in front of an action you’re observing. You can see but it’s not sharp and clear. ‘Show’ is the screen removed, where you are directly observing what’s going on. And with ‘show,’ the reader can come to his own conclusions about the characters rather than the writer telling how to feel about them.

This distinction is as important in a memoir as it is in fiction. You don’t want to tell your readers what happened; you want them to experience it—‘show’ territory.

Doesn’t ‘show’ take longer?

Yes, it often takes more words for ‘show’ than ‘tell.’ So what? Effectiveness, not efficiency, is what we are after here. The objective for the reader is to live your story not get to its end in record time.

When you want to focus the reader’s attention on particular aspects of the character’s life, these are good candidates for ‘show.’ When you want to glide over some things because they’re not germane to your main point but need to be there for the narrative to hang together, ‘tell’ might be useful.

A rule of thumb: If the point you want to establish is important (Sheila really does hate her brother; Matthew is a wimp; Serena has issues), dramatizing it by using ‘show’ is probably a good bet.

Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi



Show Versus Tell in the Movie, The Life of Pi

Have you seen the movie ‘Life of Pi’? Not the book, the movie.  The book, what can I say? Loved the beginning where the protagonist is sampling different religions, loved the end where (spoiler alert!) it’s not clear which of the stories he tells is true. But the middle? Honestly, a boy—Pi— in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

I heard somewhere it called magic realism but I guess I’m just not refined enough to get it. To me, it was a boy in a boat with a tiger. For a long time.

So, I was a bit reluctant to see the movie given the boy-boat-tiger thing. However, Ang Lee is such a good director and he was getting a lot of praise for the movie, so I allowed myself to be coerced into seeing it. And, as anticipated, the whole boy on tiger thing played prominently even though Ang Lee did an amazing job with the visuals.

But it wasn’t that which struck me as the master stroke.

Two possible endings in the Life of Pi

In the last scenes, Pi is relating his story to the insurers of the boat. They don’t believe the tiger thing, so to satisfy them, he makes up a story about he, his mother and the ship’s cook surviving in the boat (sans tiger). He says the cook killed his mother and then died himself. The insurers go away with a story they can accept.

But that’s not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is how that last scene is shot. Gérard Depardieu, the famous French actor, appears for about a minute at the beginning of the film as the cook being nasty to the boy’s mother on board before the disaster. That’s all we see of him.

Which was odd. Would Depardieu sign on for a minute on screen? I don’t think any famous actor would accept what is essentially a bit part. And then it hit me.

The power of show over tell

I would bet money Ang Lee (well, a small amount) originally filmed an entire alternate story with featured Depardieu’s character of the cook prominently. But when it came to the editing, he realized that if he showed (SHOW) the scenes with the cook on the boat, it would become too real and compete with the story which we have just spent two hours watching. So, instead, he has Pi just tell (TELL) the story. And because we don’t see the alternate story, as viewers, we believe the one we were shown.

This is a wonderful example of the power of ‘show’. When you tell something, as in the alternate story, it has some power but when you show it, as in the story in the movie, it is the reality we buy.

This is why writing teachers harp so much on ‘show’ versus ‘tell.’ ‘Tell’ gives you one effect and ‘show’ another. In the post called Showing Show and Tell, I’ll walk you through an example how to use the power of show in your writing.

The Problem with English Lit Courses


The Problem with English Lit Courses

Off the top, I differentiate between English Lit and Creative Writing courses. The latter is more closely aligned with this blog. English Lit courses focus primarily on reading the Great Literature of The English Language and talking about why it’s so great.

Great not being synonymous with ripping stories, by the way.   A friend and I once decided that to spend one lunch-time a week reading the Great Literature we’d missed. Unfortunately, we started with Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Fifty pages a week was our goal. To reach it, I had to sit in a hard-backed chair to keep awake.  That I had been unsuccessful was evident when my friend asked, “What did you think of the ship sinking at the end?”

“The ship sank?”

So concluded that pursuit.

English Lit is reductionist

My beef with English Lit for aspiring writers is that the novels are studied by parsing them to death. The devices and metaphors used; how they contribute to the major theme; the effect of the time period and context on the novel’s shape, etc.

Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Certainly you need to be able to recognize the component parts of a novel and the effect of authorial choices on the shape of the story to inform how you create your own.

But because you’ve gotten adept at identifying devices, doesn’t mean you can use them in your own writing. It doesn’t teach you how to create them or when to use them and sometimes even more importantly, when not to.

And gives the impression of fait accompli

The other objection is that a published novel is of course a finished product which doesn’t, if it works, show all the doubt, re-writing, reshaping, and struggle that had gone into it.

I find it prompts one of two reactions to aspiring writers, both bad. The first is okay, I got it. Now I can do it. These writers are unprepared for the mastery of technique they must achieve nor the amount of sloughing. They can be put off and abandon their aspirations.

Even worse are would-be authors who read a novel which has been cut, recut, and polished into the jewel it is and think I could never do this. There’s no point in trying. They don’t realize that the author started off with the same unprepossessing lump of rock that they presently have. They compare their unfinished product to the finished one and despair.

No room for magic

However, my real objection is that English Lit courses leave no room for magic which is the real reward of writing. Oh, the magic of the finished novel might be acknowledged. But not the magic of creation which is the joy of writing. It’s not magic all the time, unfortunately, and you don’t control when it visits, but when it does, it reminds me that this is what I was meant to do.

Okay, I may have set up English Lit courses as a bit of a straw horse. Their objective, to be fair, is not to make you a great writer but to study those who are. You still need to work at technique, and write, write, write. And thereby make room for magic.

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?


If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

I have at least one friend who has accused me of spoiling mystery novels for him. Every change of point of view, forced plot point, or Deus ex Machina moment kicked him out of the story. It spoiled his enjoyment of the whole book. Will this happen to you?


Unfortunately. At least, when you first start paying attention to your own choice of words and methods. As you perfect your technique, it’s natural to notice when others do it well or poorly.

So you project a future of reading pleasure destroyed just to build up a shaky repertoire of story-telling skills. Hardly seems worth it, does it?

Okay, bad news but the good news is that it is a temporary condition for two reasons: it eventually enhances your enjoyment of reading and there is a way to still enjoy novels short on craft.

Reading augmented

In the by-gone days when you were ‘just’ a reader, there would have been at least some novels of which you said, “I couldn’t get into it” or “It was kind of confusing” or “I didn’t like the main character.”

You put them away unsatisfied. It looked like it would have been a good story. Other books by this author have been. This leaves you with a vaguely uncomfortable feeling. However, since you have a life, you move onto the next novel on your list.

But as a writer, you start to see why the novel didn’t work. There wasn’t enough forward action. All that description slowed down the plot. The biker, the psychologist, and the fashion model all sounded the same (in a mystery novel I actually read).

Won’t make you like the novel any better but it provides you with the satisfaction of solving the puzzle of your reaction.

In fact, a good grasp of writing principles actually heightens your enjoyment of really fine novels. I first realized this when reading No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. Two parts of my brain were operating simultaneously. One part was crying and being completely with the character and the other was admiring. So that’s how he did it.

You can remark on how skillfully the author included scenes where the hero was a fine but troubled fellow so that your heart aches for him when he causes his own downfall. You can see why the marriage of two minor but charming characters is told rather than shown to allow the romance of the main characters to keep center stage by being shown

So in the end, understanding what makes a good story allows you to enjoy good ones more and identify mistakes in others’ writing which you can avoid in your own.

Getting around this problem

But you don’t want to spend the next however many years hating to read while you build up your writing skills.

I have a simple but effective answer. Pick what you like in the particular novel or author and read for that.

Agatha Christie was a great plotter but her character development (aside from caricature) was practically nil. But I go back to her again and again.

Other authors may write a nail-biting cliff-hanger by having his character do a completely unlikely thing. Enjoy the nail biting, ignore the pushed around heroine. The hero flourishes his hat with the plume of feathers in the novel set in the Victorian era. Ignore the historical anachronism and enjoy the romance.

If you focus on what the author does well, you can still enjoy her work even if she might be wanting on other fronts. After all, you’re not perfect either, are you?

Writing Close to the Bone

Writing Close to the Bone

I know, I know. I’ve already lectured you about emotional truth, being naked on the page, and going for broke. You might understandably be saying, “Yeah, yeah. Got it.”

But like all hard and important things, ‘getting it’ is an iterative process. You read about it once and think, “Yes, I must keep that in mind.” You read it a second time: “Right, I meant to do that.” And a third: “How come I can’t remember?”

It’s hard to recall it because it’s hard to do and outside almost everyone’ comfort zone. It takes a concerted effort. Which sometimes works and the result is a joy. And sometimes doesn’t.

So, because I think this issue is so critical to truly bringing yourself to the page, I’m going to give it another kick at the cat. But this time from when I have yearned to be able to do it.

Yearning to be close to the bone

In my journal or other times when I ‘should’ be writing, I have often whined about how hard it is to reach that spot all writers covet.

I keep watching Inside The Actors’ Studio to get another jolt like Meryl Streep’s one true thing. That she can play any character if she can find in her the one thing that is true for her and true for the character. That I can create any character if I can find that one thing that is true for her and true for me.

But it’s been dry pickings lately.

Although Dustin Hoffman. He cried. He cried almost as soon as he sat down. About his father, I think. But no matter. How close to the surface the passion. How easily it slipped out. How much I envy that—the pick ax and drill nature of my passion. So carefully concealed, so appropriately expressed. White gloves for shopping still on.  


I let myself wander away from that which would be fearless. Like the nakedness would be as unattractive as my body without clothes. Like it would confirm what we all suspected—she has an overweight soul. That passion is a garment held together by safety pins of technique. That the clever turn of phrase can be the sleight of hand, to dazzle, to distract, to confuse and ultimately, to change the subject.

Writing as a chronic condition

I know that every writer despairs sometimes of sinking deep down into who they are. I guess there might be some who don’t but I’m not sure that I’d want to hang out with them. It is unfortunately, the natural state of writers.  To doubt, to fail in courage, to have moments when they know that the world would continue to spin happily on its axis if they never wrote again.

But writing is a chronic condition. It will not be denied. You write because you must.

And it will work

As my final word on this from my journal.

Not quite drivel, not quite story. But from that place that has been absent for a while, missed and yet proceeding forward, like the impolite guest for whom you no longer hold dinner. Even though he provides the light and the laughter and the meaning.