7th June

Show, Don’t Tell

The above three words are one of the first things anyone doing any writing comes across. They are important if the writer wishes their prose to flow with life and vitality, to reflect the sparkle of moonlight as it plays across shards of broken glass. Personally, I am glad I have been educated in the art of showing, and not telling. I’m still developing the skill.

Of course, the instruction is also useless. A dangerous rule which will leaves a writer’s work unintelligible.

Why? When?

Let’s take two examples:


‘Pierre leaned forward, looking into the hallway. Light from the street fell through the jagged gash in the door window. Fractured reflections showed where the glass had fallen, but revealed nothing of the one who had done it.’


‘Kugara shifted his kimono and looked at the walls. Opposite him was a Kanaoka, behind him he’d seen a Josetsu. Facing each other on the walls were a pop-art representation of Tessai, and a Soseki.’

Now, ignore my technical ineptness. Let’s examine them. In example One ‘Show, don’t tell’ works perfectly, and for all time. We can be Pierre looking through the window and seeing the glass on the floor. This is what Chekhov meant when he wrote to his brother Alexander: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”

The second example is gauche and clumsy, but does reflect an area where ‘Show, don’t tell’ can cripple any potential longevity a writer may desire. The placing of art works opposite each other is an indicator of social naiveté. To have works on four walls, and them all reflecting different time-periods, and styles, is to emphasize the crassness to the nth degree. But how are you to know that, unless you know about Japanese social mores from the mid-twentieth century?

Writing is communication. There are some things which need communicated in ways that are subtle, and draw the reader in, allowing them to feel, see, taste, smell, hear. Other things need explained to the reader, this is especially the case where the writer wants an audience of breadth and scope. My experience and knowledge bears nothing in common with that which a girl born twenty minutes ago in Hangzhou will accumulate. We could both read and understand whatever story the first excerpt could come from, what are the chances we will both acquire the knowledge to understand the second? I only have it because some scholar took the trouble to explain it in the preface of a translation of a book I read. Without that assistance, the allusion was worthless.

So, show, don’t tell. Show the reader that which they could experience themselves. Tell them that which they cannot know.