The Secret to Show, Don't Tell

The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell

Gone are the days of the long narrative passages we used to see in novels written by greats like Dickens and Steinbeck. Even though literary prose is still highly praised and found in many bestselling commercial novels, the trend over the last few decades has been to “show, not tell.” Meaning, readers prefer scenes in which they are watching the action unfold in real time—instead of being told what is happening by the author or even by one of the characters.

Sol Stein, in his book Stein on Writing, says,

Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.

This is even more true in the twenty-first century. As literary agent and author Donald Maass says in Writing 21st Century Fiction: “Make characters do something that readers can visualize.”

Just How Do You Show?

As much as we writers hear the phrase “show, don’t tell,” we never hear anyone explain just how to do that.

  • Is there only one way to “show” a scene?
  • Is there a “best” way?
  • Is there a secret to doing this well?

I believe the key is in what Stein spoke of—how the reading experience has been affected by film. Film technique is the ultimate in showing instead of telling. In fact, even in scenes in which a character is talking about what is happening, whether a character on the screen or as a voiceover (when you just hear someone talking but don’t see them), you still see something happening on the screen before you. In a novel, if the author interrupts the present action to explain something (narrative or exposition), the reader stops “seeing” what’s going on.

Back in the day, because film had to be edited laboriously by hand and was tricky to do seamlessly, many movie scenes were filmed using one camera from one angle in one continuous shot. Take a look at some of the dance scenes from some old Fred Astaire movies and you’ll be amazed how he performed his dance sequences so perfectly in one long shot! It makes me wonder how many takes they’d have to do to get that perfect sequence.

Now with the wonders of modern technology, film editors can cut and splice with ease and create scenes out of numerous segments from different camera angles. Just pay attention the next time you watch an action movie like Die Hard. See if you can count all the individual cuts and camera shots that have been pieced together in a segment. Sometimes there are dozens—forcing your eye to shift from close-up to zoom, to panning the action, to an inserted detail, and the list goes on.

If novelists approach their scenes in a similar fashion, they’ll produce powerful, riveting scenes. These scenes don’t have to be high action; any scene can benefit from this technique. Too many novel scenes feel like the camera is stuck in one spot watching what is happening, and that can make a scene flat and boring. Imagine two people talking while they sit and drink tea with the camera only showing their two faces. Boring. But you don’t just want to “move your camera around” randomly. And this is where the secret comes in.

The Secret to “Show, Don’t Tell”

Let me preface by saying something I say often, to the point of excess: every scene needs to have a point or it shouldn’t be in your novel. With that said, let me add this: every scene needs a high moment, where that point is made. When actress Rosalind Russell was asked “What distinguishes a great movie?” she answered, “Moments.” And that’s so true for scenes.

We remember great scenes because they contain a great moment. Often that moment is not something huge and explosive. On the contrary—the best moments are the very subtle ones in which the character learns or realizes something that may appear small to the outside world but is giant in scope to the character.http://www.livewritethrive.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wordpress/img/trans.gif

So, once you determine the “moment” in your story, think about the best way to show it. If you are revealing something small—like a word, an expression or reaction, or a physical detail, you’ll want to have your “camera” up close. If it’s a big explosion in a city center, you’ll want to use a long shot to see the impact on a huge scale. Once you envision that moment and how you mean to show it, you can work backward to build up to it. Just like a movie director does when planning the segments to shoot a scene, writers can storyboard or plan out each segment leading up to their “moment” to give it the greatest punch.

Learn from today’s top movie directors and watch how they tell a story on the big screen by using camera shots. Pay attention to the key moments in each scene and notice how the filmmakers “show” instead of “tell.” If you take the time to study great scenes in movies, you can discover ways to fashion great scenes in your novels. Don’t be surprised when readers keep saying to you, “Wow, I could really picture your novel as a movie.” Take that as a compliment.

Tell me your opinion: What have the movies taught you about writing novels?

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About C.S. Lakin | @cslakin

C. S. Lakin is a multipublished novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

  1. Oooh! I LOVE this post!! Especially because I teach writing to middle grade kids and have been talking to them and showing and not telling.

    I think because our readers are more visual (thanks to movies, video games, internet, etc.) our scenes must be visual as well. My readers tell me all the time that my book should be a movie or that it was written “like a movie” and that’s because I am child of the 70′s. TV and movies were my life!

    I am glad you encourage writers to make every scene count. I try to motivate my students to draw the reader into each scene with the characters words and actions. “I want to see them in your story!” I tell them.

    Great post!!

  2. This is such a brilliant post! It hits all the right points for clarity, and I especially love the idea of building a story board up to your scene “moment.” I literally just recommended that someone storyboard their opening scene in this Monty’s First Five Pages Workshop, and I’m going to go back and add a link to this post. Of course, it’s all easier said than done, which is why I still struggle with my own work! :)

    Thanks so much for sharing your insight!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Susanne!

  4. After attending a film-making academy last year, I’ve found that the only true difference between a movie and a book is that the book relies on the reader’s ability to visualize the scene. If utilized properly, an author can create a scene that is much more gripping than a comparable scene in a movie.
    And that is exactly what I’m always striving to do. My readers tell me that I’ve done it in some of my stories. But, as is common with most writers, I’m not content until I reach six sigma.. ;)
    Thanks for sharing, C.S. :D

  5. Love it! One of my main inspirations is Buffy the Vampire Slayer :)

  6. “Tell me your opinion: What have the movies taught you about writing novels?” -

    for me, those movies that let me wander into the physical scene, though often underscored with music, that let me feel the terrain, or inside of a dwelling, the yard or streets around where the character lives, are those i seem to remember best

    and i suppose, the “music underscore” might be, in terms of use of words, the “way” we use the words we choose, the way the words link together, flow or chop or do (sorta) fitness intervals in our hearts and minds ;-)

    nice post, really enjoyed this, thanks so much, best wishes ;-)

  7. Thanks for the great comments, and thanks, Katie, for having me on your blog! If any are interested, Shoot Your Novel is running as a year-long course on my blog Live Write Thrive and I’m covering in-depth looks at many camera shots and cinematic technique that writers can use in their scene structure. http://www.livewritethrive.com
    ~Susanne

    • Thanks Susanne. Reading this information makes me want to keep writing. Thanks for taking the time to care enough for writers/authors to keep us informed and educated. Someday, you will see the fruit of your labor towards up and coming authors like myself and many others. Godspeed

  8. Wonderful post. I often write while watching “the movie of my novel” rolling in my head. Now I know to take that information more seriously, and apply it! Thanks for the tips.

  9. Excellent post!

  10. When I’m writing, I try to visualize the scene as if it were in a movie. Will I need a voiceover (internal dialogue) for readers to know what’s going on, or will the emotions and thoughts and motivations be conveyed through the actors’ words and actions? Both, of course, have their place, but I know I personally would much rather watch the scene unfold rather than be told about it.

  11. That was an excellent post. Really got me thinking, breaking it down smaller before getting the big picture. One question, though. I am writing memoir. I am the narrator. If I need to talk about, say, heir land (you can take a look at two consecutive posts here to see what I mean…
    http://debranewton-carter.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-family-history-writing-challenge_6.html
    http://debranewton-carter.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-family-history-writing-challenge_7.html
    …so that my readers will understand the importance of visiting the elder cousin with all the siblings to hear about her final wishes…but only if we all attend…
    How can I do something like that by showing instead of telling? Or should I just leave it out?

  12. Basically, write the story that I SEE in my head. When I’m writing a scene, I see every movement, character, detail, and nuance. If I can get those visions on the paper effectively, it’s a good scene.

  13. So like if I wanted to show a scene like George Lucas, or Stanley Kubrick would I need to study how they show in one of their scripts?

    Unfortunately I don’t like a lot of what I watch has a script that printed off, or at least in English. I watch a lot of anime.

  14. Great blog! Finally, another author who talks about something very similar to what I’ve been trying to do with my own writing.

  15. Finally descriptive words for actionable advise.

  16. All this is great so far as action is concerned. But the novel has one great virtue no film can have. It can let the reader into the mind of characters. In real-life dialogue, for instance, people don’t always say what they mean or carry on conversations in a strictly logical way. In a film you’re entirely dependent on the actor and director to make sense of your realistically dissociated dialogue by expression or gesture. In a novel, you can let the reader into the thoughts behind the words, so that the actual dialogue is merely the tip of the ice berg.

  17. Great post. I find myself doing a lot of telling, but then again I’m old fashioned. This is a good lesson for me.

  18. Okay, I think this post has prompted me to look at my writing in a whole new perspective! Thanks for sharing.

  19. Writing scenes while keeping a movie camera view in mind is bound to make a better novel. Thanks so much!

  20. With all due respect for Ms. Lakin and her success as a writer, as well as for the others who have commented here, I’m feel I must say that I don’t agree with this approach. Speaking only for myself, and I might be the only one on the planet who feels this way, I, as a reader, do not want to read a novel that basically reads like a screenplay. It completely turns me off. I want to be challenged to use my own imagination to picture the scenes in a book, or the nuance of a character’s expression, based on the author’s description, and not being forced to picture it as a movie director might if they were going to capture that scene on film. To me it feels like authors are trying to dumb-down readers and feed them ready-made-for-the-screen images, when for me, it is so much more fun to imagine it myself. Just my two cents; no disrespect intended. Peace for your day.

    • I know you posted quite a while ago but I think you’re spot on. While I know it’s important for novels to have variety in how the story is presented, I think “20th Century Readers” could learn from the “long narrative passage”. Back then the idea of “painting a picture” was still conveyed, but the author did it in a way where it still ended up being the imagination and idea of the reader, not a clone of what the writer is thinking. No two people are alike so the way they imagine a scene in a book will not be alike, no matter how much detail or information is given. It seems to me that the idea of “show don’t tell” tells readers what to think and how to think it. They are also shackled into envisioning exactly what the author was thinking, when there should always be room for imagination and creativity.

  21. One great thing about writing is there is room for every style and writers can structure their stories however they want. We all have different tastes. I would find it hard to enjoy and stick with a book that had nothing in the way of showing a scene–all narrative or exposition and telling. I doubt many readers really enjoy a book written like that, but there might be a few out there. Storytelling in its most ancient form was all about helping listeners picture something that happened or some fable or legend. But the art of storytelling has always involved “showing” by engaging listeners through the art of “painting a picture” for them to imagine. If authors don’t do similarly, how will they engage readers?

  22. Curious you should cite Dickens, seeing as he was a very visual writer – not that that us what “show, don’t tell” actually refers to anyway.

  23. Awesome! Very informative.

  24. Awesome! Very informative.

  25. Thank you for this! Very inspiring to keep searching for more ‘moments’ in my writing, reading, and my life.

  26. Wow, the light bulb went on! Thanks for the post and the great visual!

  27. Super post. Thanks.

  28. This is a great post; a nice twist on a common topic. I’ve been reading a lot of self-published books lately and this is often a point the authors miss. As you say, great works of old got away with pages long blocks of expository text, but no more. As to your question I like to study the actors – when they are angry or surprised, or thrilled, how do they convey that. Then you top it off by discussing “camera angles”. Not just who the POV character should be, but where. Good point!

  29. Thanks for this very useful post. I have just given a link to this post.

  30. Thank you for this outstanding post! It gave me fresh insights into showing my scenes.

    Blessings,

    MaryAnn
    __________________________

  31. Margaret Chesire says:

    I am really happy after reading this post,I sincerely thank you for sharing what you know with others .Now this is the first step to being a brilliant author not a writer.

  32. Thanks for the practical advice on “show, don’t tell”. It seems that approaching scene construction and viewpoint in the same way as a film director would work best in third person omniscient or cinematic POV. Any tips for using these techniques in third person limited or first person style without jarring POV changes or head hopping?

  33. I totally love this post because not only is it so relevant in a time where books are being made into movies and vice versa, but it also hinges on the fact readers are watchers and they are very observant of critical moments in a book.

    Many times I have read a book and thought: “I can see this on Lifetime! or an action flick!” My hope is to translate that very well into my own writings and be watchful for moments.

    Thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Laikin presents The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell posted at Wordplay, saying, “Gone are the days of the long narrative passages we used to see […]

  2. […] written as a guest blogger. How to Tap into Your Passion Every Time You Write ~ on Write to Done The Secret to “Show, Don’t Tell” ~ on Wordplay, K. M. Weiland’s blog 5 Key Questions to Ask as You Write Your Novel ~ on Write to […]

  3. […] * K.M. Weiland, another powerful resource, wrote this great post on the topic here: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2013/02/the-secret-to-show-dont-tell.html […]

  4. […] The Secret to Show, Don’t Tell […]

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