“Show, Don’t Tell” explained

This is one of the most misunderstood rules in all of prose fiction.

It’s important to understand that every single sentence you write is simultaneously telling one thing (the explicit/referential meaning of the sentence) and showing others (that which is implied or inferred by the sentence).

So, the famous example from Chekhov of “showing” by way of “light glinting in broken glass” is indeed “showing” the reader the light of the moon, because that is not made explicit but rather inferred by the reader. However, the sentence is “telling” us that there is broken glass and that light is glinting in it.

The general recipe for “show, don’t tell” is this: think about whatever it is you want the reader to feel or imagine or understand, and then don’t write that thing. Instead, write around it, so that the reader can feel what you are getting at by way of implication or inference.

Showing is always more evocative than telling, since the reader supplies the information from their own imagination, which is necessarily more vivid than reading it on the page. Showing uses more of the reader’s brain, and places the target image in their imagination, not just within their linguistic processing.

“Show, don’t tell” applies to all aspects of writing, including theme, tone, character, emotion, plot, setting, description, etc. You can show any of these things, or you can tell them.

For example, to “tell” emotion is to say, “John was angry”. To “show” the same emotion is to have John punch someone, or tell them to fuck off. Likewise we can identify “telling” for character, as in “John was the sort of guy to get angry easily”, for setting, as in “they were standing in a grocery store”, for description, as in “it was really dark”, and so on, all of which can be translated into “showing” statements by picking out the right sort of evocative details—details which imply or allow the reader to infer that which you intended to convey.

Many people wrongly equate “show, don’t tell” with a distinction between “scene” and “summary”. But this is only “show, don’t tell” as it concerns plot. It’s true, to “show” the plot is to write a scene, and to “tell” the plot is to write a summary. But this is only the the principle as it applies to the dimension of plot. “Show, don’t tell” is much broader than that. Similarly, many people wrongly interpret “show, don’t tell” as a caution against info-dumps or “expository lumps”. But exposition is only “show, don’t tell” as it applies to backstory, setting, or other information. Summary “tells” the plot, but it can simultaneously show other things; likewise, info-dumps or exposition, while it “tells” backstory or other information, can show other things. (For example, an info-dump about a historical artifact will “show” something about the narrator, or in the cases of dialogue, about the speaking character.) In both cases, an author might choose to use these techniques to “tell” something while effectively/artfully “showing” something else.

The question isn’t whether to show, it’s first what to show, and then how to show it. If you are writing fiction, there are many things you will want to show, including character, theme, emotion, plot progression, world-building (if you’re writing in the speculative mode), backstory, etc, etc. Ideally, you want to show multiple things with each sentence. A well-crafted story reveals multiple layers through the surface level of the text; a single line of description can simultaneously develop character, theme, and plot, without saying any of them directly. It shows multiple layers of meaning.

Many people wrongly believe that “showing” takes more words than “telling”. This is completely wrong. Effective showing is often shorter than telling. In fact, Hemingway (who along with Chekhov is one of the two most important authors for the “show, don’t tell” principle) talked about the “iceberg” theory of literature, where most of the story is hidden below the surface level of the words. Hemingway uses lots of simple sentences, but buries the emotion and character and theme below the surface, showing the story by hiding it “between the lines”, so to speak.

I think there are probably two reasons why people think “showing” is shorter than “telling”: the first, because they wrongly believe that “show, don’t tell” just means to use scene rather than summary, and of course scene is always longer than summary; the second, because the wealth of examples of “show, don’t tell” that you can find online are people taking simple descriptive statements, like “Sally was friendly”, and then replacing them with additional detail. These examples are indeed a form of “showing”, but it’s a limited aspect of showing that is probably better talked about in terms of “general/vague/abstract” language versus “specific” language, or more generally, the concept of the ladder of abstraction. Showing should in general be shorter than telling, because it is about cutting things out and letting the reader intuit or infer the meaning. Often, during editing, this can literally mean just deleting entire sentence rather than rewriting them. First drafts will often contain pairs of sentences, where the first tells and the second shows, something like: “Frank was distracted and he burnt the toast. He smelled burning toast and rushed to hit the button.” In this example, the first sentence can be deleted entirely, because it is shown by the second. If you go through and delete the first of these kind of paired sentences, your manuscript will be made shorter by following the principle of “show, don’t tell”. In other cases, showing is shorter because fewer words, rightly used, can convey multiple layers of meaning. This is probably easiest to see in the case of punchy dialogue, which can simultaneously convey characters, relationships, and plot.

There are many literary techniques for “showing”.  For example, the techniques of metaphor, irony, understatement, ambiguity, and unreliable narration all depend essentially on what is not stated by the writer. Each of them, in their own way, refrains from telling directly, and instead shows just enough for the reader to comprehend the meaning on their own—these techniques all rely on the reader to do some work to find the underlying meaning, where it’s hidden between the lines. They are all examples of showing, rather than telling.

In literature, the written text includes narrative gaps that are filled in by the reader. According to some critics, in particular reader-response critic Stanley Fish, this is the distinctive feature of literature: plain-language is referential and expository, whereas literary language reveals additional meaning through intentional interpretive gaps. According to this view, “show, don’t tell” is not just advice on good writingit is the essence of literature. Plain language puts the meaning in the surface level of the words (it “tells”) and literary language puts the meaning in interpretive gaps filled by the reader (it “shows”).

Before writing anything, you should figure out what it is you are hoping to express. You can think of what you want to express as the “target”—it could be a character trait, an emotion, a theme etc. The goal of “show, don’t tell” is to write in such a way that you express the “target” without saying it explicitly.

My Story Addrassus in Broadswords and Blasters issue #8!

Very happy to have my story Addrassus in issue #8 of Broadswords and Blasters, just released, and available here! And really happy to have the story described as “shades of Odysseus and some of the best action sequences you’ll read this year”! I hope you check it out! Thanks! And if you do, please tell me what you thought!
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Imps & Minions – Open Call for Subs and Kickstarter

The Imps & Minions anthology is now open for submissions from authors, and the Kickstarter page is live!

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From the open call page:

We are seeking high-quality speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, and speculative horror) on the theme of “imps & minions”. Stories should feature an imp or a minion.

Submission information and the submission form can be found on our kickstarter page.

If you like this project and want to support us, I would really appreciate if you would take a look at our kickstarter reward options and help us out by becoming a backer. (I recommend going for the paperback reward option.)

Thanks a lot! I’m really looking forward to reading all the submissions and putting together this awesome project with the team, with the support of our kickstarter backers!

Free Dramatic Readings from the Hamthology!

Voice artist Jeff Clement has performed readings of two works from the Hamthology, And both are available as free audio downloads from here! Jeff Clement can be found on Twitter @auralstimulate and his webpage http://auralstimulation.net/

The two selections are:

  • “Wish Granted”, short fiction written by Gregg Chamberlain, performed by Jeff Clement. Gregg Chamberlain can be found on Twitter @greggchamberlain and his work can be found on his Amazon page.
  • “Pig Collector”, poem written by Jim Lewis, performed by Jeff Clement. More of Jim’s poetry can be found on his FaceBook poetry page.

 

Both are available as free audio downloads from here.

True North – free eBook download

In True North, first published in the Aurora-nominated “49th Parallels anthology” (2017) by Bundoran Press, two rangers hunt down a damaged climate control drone through the frozen, post-apocalyptic tundra of Northern Canada

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The eBook can be downloaded for free from tdotSpec (scroll to the bottom of page for download location).

 

Colony–“one-shot” anthology released

What happens when you get a team of writers together and give them 24 hours to write and edit an entire speculative fiction collection on the theme of “Colony”? This anthology happens!

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This speculative fiction anthology was created during an intense, 24-hour period of writing and editing. A team of authors residing in Toronto were given the theme of “Colony”, and a strict timeline to produce stories based on that theme.This is more than a collection of imaginative and entertaining stories—it is also a feat in creative writing. It embodies the efforts of authors writing and editing fervently under absurd time pressures. They set themselves a challenge and pushed themselves to the finish line. The Colony anthology is the result of their efforts.

I hope you get a chance to read it, and let the authors know what you thought of their work!

Strange Economics – Economic Speculative Fiction

We just launched the Strange Economics anthology! Woo hoo!

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What if souls were a form of currency? What if our potential could be bought and sold? What is the value of a memory? These economic questions and more are explored through twenty-three science fiction and fantasy stories, appearing for the first time in this collection.

The beautiful, full-wrap cover image, “Ring of Heaven”, is by illustrator Jonathan Maurin.

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This anthology also includes economics discussion questions accompanying each of the stories, written by professional economist Elisabeth Perlman, and an afterword/essay exploring the relationship between speculative fiction and economics, written by guest editor Jo Lindsay Walton.

It’s an awesome collection, and I hope you check it out!

Paperback link

eBook link

Sanctuary – an entire science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthology written in a day

We wrote and edited this entire anthology in a day. Seriously.

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It usually takes about a year to produce an anthology. We decided to see what would happen if we tried to do it in a single day. Sanctuary is the result of that experiment.

All of the writers were given the theme “Sanctuary” in advance. They were allowed to come up with ideas, characters, plot elements, or anything else they wanted for planning purposes, based on this theme. But all the writing and editing was done in a single day, most of it over four hours in a marathon writing session at The Imperial Pub in downtown Toronto.

The cover is by Dominik Gutzeit (Hydraw-Art).

The paperback is available from Amazon here. Full disclosure: I make 8 cents per copy sold at this cover price.

If you want an eBook of Sanctuary, I’m happy to email you one for free. I’ve made a form for that here.

I would really like to get some positive reviews for this experimental anthology. So please, if you enjoy it, drop by the Amazon page and leave a review.

Thanks!

David