Show Me, Show Me, Show Me

Maybe I’m dense, writes a reader about my post last week “Queen For a Day”, but I don’t really understand (in concrete terms) what you mean by showing vs. telling in writing. Could you give an example?

Thank you for calling me out on this — I agree with you: I have a lot of nerve giving writing advise without concrete examples.  What I did was tell you about a writing tip without showing you how its done. I must make amends (and by the way,  dear reader who wants concrete examples, I could use you as a beta reader for my next book, if you’re not busy. I need to be called out on my writing).

So I decided to use, as concrete examples, stuff the two books I am currently reading. I will cite here incidents when the writer tells you something, and when he shows you — and you can see for yourself how much better it is to be shown something rather than just told it.

Both my examples come from narrative non-fiction of the memoir persuasion, because I don’t read fiction; however, I am sure that when writers of fiction tell rather than show, the effects are far more annoying and artless because fiction, more than memoir, depends on showing the reader an inner world in order for the reader to give the book the release from reality that is so crucial to the genre. (Did I say that right? ) But really good non-fiction raises itself to literature by using the techniques of fiction (showing stuff, that is) to strengthen its narrative power…like this:

In the memoir  My Cat Spit McGee  (pub. 1998) the writer Willie Morris (on page 106) describes the visit of  ninth graders to his home in Mississippi to talk to him about his life and career as a Mississippi writer.  The kids had just been through a tragedy at their school (the Pearl High School shooting, when a 15-year old killed his mother at home and then brought his gun to school, killing two and injuring several more)  and the teacher thought it would be good for the kids to get off the grounds and visit the man whose book they had been studying in English class.  And Willie Morris’ cat, Spit, seemed to know that these kids needed some love, although Spit was not usually interested in glad-handing visitors:

They [the kids]  sat on my grass in the backyard with RC Colas and Moon Pies as we talked bout books, and the writing of them. Spit was out there among them, mingling tenderly with those children…

 writes Morris.  Notice that so far, all he’s done is tell you about Spit and the kids, reporting his conclusions about what happened between Spit and the traumatised, restless, fearful kids. Now, a bad writer would just leave it at that, call it a day, put his feet up and wonder how much longer he had to wait until cocktail hour.

But Morris is a good writer. He’s not going to have you take him at his word; he’s going to take the time and make the effort to show you what Spit did with those kids, so you can see for yourself what “mingling tenderly with those children” means, and show you what a great cat that Spitty is. And he does that by describing exactly what took place out on the grass:

[Spit] mingles tenderly with those children, wagging his tail at them like a dog, falling on his back and extending all four paws in the air to exhibit his idiosyncratic resting posture, climbing trees, running in circles, allowing them to examine his different-colored eyes, consuming a few Moon Pie crumbs offered him, then sitting alertly in the midst of them as the discussion turned to himself. What does Spit eat? they asked. I brought a container of Gerber strained turkey to demonstrate his reaction to the shrill metallic sound of the top as I opened it. [etc., etc., etc.] They finally said good-bye to him one by one, individually petting him about the head and ears and he even accompanied them to the school bus as they were departing. For me it was one of his proudest hours, and I told him so.

And now that Morris has shown you how Spit “mingled tenderly with the children“, you can see it in detail yourself,  how Spit rolled and posed and did a trick etc.  (If you can get a cat to eat Gerber’s strained turkey [Spit's favorite food, by the way] when you want him to, I call that a major trick…I’m a cat person. I’m used to cats doing the exact opposite of what you want them to do.)  See? See?

Another example about show and tell comes from the other book I’m reading, The Education of Henry Adams.

This is a classic memoir by Henry Adams (1838-1918) the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams ,  of how he was educated to be an American of the 20th century, different from the 18th century of his famous Presidential kin.

This is a good book to use and an example of the difference between show and tell because this book is more straight-forwardly an old fashioned memoir, closely resembling a journal. These days, memoir as a genre has evolved so much that memoirs are as sophisticated as fiction, having a story arc (if not a plot)  and using a lot of fiction’s techniques in having characters and dialog and pacing.  The Education of Henry Adams  is a sophisticated memoir in that the memoirist writes about himself in the third person and he has a unifying theme to his recollections (it’s not just the story of his life, it’s a stoyr with a literary purpose). But it is also long chronology — more diary-like than modern memoirs.

In other words, us journalers can learn a thing or two about how he shows his life, rather than just tells it.

In 1862 Henry Adams is in England and he is having dinner at the country estate of a well-connected English gentleman. It is a small dinner, made of just young men in the arts and, like Henry, in the diplomatic corps. One of the guests is an unpublished poet called Algernon Swinburne (later to become quite the most famous poet of his day).  Henry Adams is astonished by Swinburne’s conversation.  He describes the young man as brilliant:

Swinburne was altogether new, wildly eccentric, astonishingly gifted, and convulsingly droll   Henry writes.

And if Henry were writing a typical celebrity memoir, he would leave it at that — having dropped the Swinburne name, Henry would call it a day, put his feet up and wonder how much longer he had to wait until cocktail hour.  I mean, for god’s sake, he’s just told you he met Swinburne — what else do you want??

Well, you want details. You want to know exactly how “convulsingly droll” the guy was. You want Henry to show you Swinburne.  Well, Henry kind of does:

[I] could not believe his incredible memory and knowledge of literature, classic, mediaeval, and modern; his faculty or reciting a play of Sophocles or a play of Shakespeare, forward or backward, from beginning to end; or Dante, Villon, or Victor Hugo. [I] did not know what to make of his rhetorical recitation of his own unpublished ballads –  “Faustine”; the “four Bastards of the Coffin Lid”; the “ballad of Burdens” — which he declaimed as though they were books of the Iliad.

Usually, it would be nifty if a memoirist can give exact quotes from the journal or diary he was keeping at the time so that we could read something specifically “convulsingly droll“, but given the hoity-toity nature of Swinburne’s talk, I’m glad he didn’t. I really don’t want to read Shakespeare backwards. But Henry Adams, ever the wonderful memoirist, knows that he must show you something  here, so he gives you one of the guests’ reaction, a guy named Stirling,  to the amazing Swinburne:

All the time, Stirling  was ejaculating explosions of wonder [about Swinburne's brilliance] until at the climax of his imagination he paused and burst out: “He’s a cross between the devil and the Duke of Argyll!”

There.  Now, even though I don’t know what kind of character the Duke of Argyll is and why he’s mentioned here, I find this funny.  The use of a direct quote (nice note keeping in the diary, Henry!)  in addition to the careful list of the topics of his conversational brilliance is how Henry Adams shows you Swinburne, and it really juices up the story — that’s literary technique there!  (Note to self: be sure I am writing down conversations in my journal to spiff up my memoirs.) 

So, in conclusion: Don’t tell a reader that your cat is very amusing — show the reader how your cat does tricks.  Don’t tell the reader that somebody was a good conversationist — show the reader how the guy talked about Shakespeare and Dante and could recite Jabberwocky in Welsh with a lisp.  Don’t tell the reader that someone is handsome — show the reader the color of his sparkling eyes, the shape of his Roman nose, the golden-wheat color of his hair. Don’t tell me someone was born in Kenya and can’t be President: show me the Kenyan birth certificate. Most of all, don’t tell me someone is funny: quote the bastard: show me.

So that’s the difference between show and tell.

Now look carefully at the book you’re reading, and notice examples of show and tell in the text. Looking for them will hone your skills as a

(1) reader

(2) writer.

And if you find any good ones, please let us know in the Comments. I think examples of show and tell are lots of fun to read — and since I’ve just finished the lovely memoir of the lovely Richard Chamberlain (a really lovely, sweet man; but oh Lordy not a writer), I have lots of tell tell tell that I could show you — are you interested?

By the way, you can find Richard Chamberlain’s hot nude scene with Barbara Stanwyk in The Thorn Birds on You Tube.  You should read what Richard had to tell about that (it’s really boring).  Good thing there’s the world wide web to show what Richard only tells: Oh, how I love the internets!

P.S. I  hope this helped. I hope this wasn’t too long an answer, too long a post today. On Friday I promise something quick and stupid.

6 comments to Show Me, Show Me, Show Me

  • candice

    Oh, my, I am going STRAIGHT to the Internets to order Spit McGhee. How did I miss this gem? Willie Morris AND a cat! Thanks for using it in your excellent examples and explanation.

  • Thank you for SHOWING me the difference between show and tell – I understand now. And no, it wasn’t too long of a post – it was very enlightening and entertaining.

    So, just what is a beta reader – would I get to read your book before it’s published? That sounds like fun!

  • Deborah

    A good entry, not too long.

    I had “show, don’t tell” drummed into me in my English classes, and I was always bothered by the terminology — “describe, don’t state” seems more apt to me. And sometimes I like to be both shown AND told.

    I was going to write up an example:
    Telling: My husband has been having nosebleeds, and blood gets all over stuff.

    But after spending 4 hours in the emergency room this morning, I’m too tired to describe what it’s like seeing all that bright red in our usually oh-so-neutral bathroom, listing all the places I had to scrub the blood splats off of, etc. etc. (Etc. is definitely the antithesis of showing/describing)

    Also difficult to describe how welcome today’s blog was in the aftermath of all that — you had me from the picture of the cat on the car window…

  • Sally

    Thank you, Vivian, for timely advice.

    I had attended an exhibit of Dürer prints with the folks from my watercolor class, and was surprised to find that they knew little about printmaking. I promised them, in just these words, a Show and Tell on the various techniques. With you voice in my ear today, Vivian, and knowing I can easily revert to being a lecturer (zzzzz), I made a point of emphasizing Show.

    If I left it at that, I’d just be telling you, so now I will Show you: I had lots of hardware to show them–tools, printing blocks, plates… I printed from a lino block and a silk screen, and demo’d a drypoint etching. At one point I told them that I was sure all of them had extremely fine examples of the engraver’s art in their pockets. They were perplexed until I gave them the hint that the engravings had portraits of Washington, Lincoln…(much laughter, and, even better, much careful examination with new eyes of their folding money).

    So, m’dear, you are sending ripples through extremely soggy Cambridge, MA.

  • Like Deborah – you had my undivided attention from the top down. I absolutely now understand the value of “showing” along with “telling” and explains my frustration with a book called “The Book of Telling” by Sharona Ben-Tov Muir. She promises to reveal “the secrets of her father’s life” – her dad’s Itzhak Bentov and I’m a big fan of his so bought this book as a birthday present for myself – and I actually think the back cover of this book showed me more about Itzhak than the whole book! Shows you – it’s good to know the divs!

  • Your “Show, don’t tell” advice has been ringing in my ears. I think about it as I read and write. Probably the most valuable comment I have ever had on my writing..Thanks!

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