Show and Tell: Classic Writing Advice Explained With Strippers

Aside from “do better“, my most common editing note to myself is that classic bit of writer advice, “show, don’t tell.”

And, like most classic bits of advice–see my diatribe on “write what you know” here– it’s often misunderstood. It doesn’t mean you should never tell the reader things. Just that, if there’s another way, consider doing that before falling back on the good ol’ tell. Because showing is more inviting.

To put it another way, you’re trying to titillate the reader, give them a reason to continue reading. And titillation events are called peepshows, not peeptells.

I will illustrate the difference in the traditional manner: with strippers.

Imagine it’s your birthday. Imagine your friends have hired two strippers. The first arrives, drops his* pants, and then stands in the middle of the room while Depeche Mode plays for twenty minutes. He doesn’t do anything. He just stands there and allows you to admire him.

The second knocks on the door in a fake police officer’s uniform, and comes in to ‘inspect the premises’ before spending his twenty minutes putting on a show. You are involved in the show–pulling off a glove, catching a thrown hat–and while the end result is still nudity, the process is very different.

Which stripper would do you prefer?

If you say the first, you’ve probably got a good future in writing technical manuals.

This is the difference between showing and telling in writing. Telling removes the mystery, the interpretation. It’s just there, in your face. Showing takes you along for the ride, inviting you to be an active participant.

Now, there are times when the pants-off telling approach works. Sometimes showing doesn’t get to the point. Imagine Stripper #2 leaving after having taken off his hat and one shoe. There’s a guy who’s not getting a tip.

And sometimes showing isn’t necessary. It would take too long, or interrupt the narrative flow for no good reason. Sometimes you just want to see a naked dude in your living room.

Metaphorically.**

My general rule–and as usual, your mileage may vary–is that emotions, reactions, and other stuff like that should be shown if possible. Don’t tell me someone is angry; show me their clenched jaw and the spit flying as they yell. But if it drags focus from the main purpose of the passage, slows down the narrative too much***, or otherwise distracts, then telling is fine. You should exhaust the possibilities of showing first, then move on to telling. And never forget the purpose of what you’re doing.

Flash a little skin, spin your ostrich feathers, smile…and go for the big finish.

*It’s my blog, the strippers are what I say they are. Feel free to fill in the gender of your choice.

**And not metaphorically.

***Though I should point out that, if this happens a lot, your writing style might be to blame. There are quick ways of showing most things if you work at it a little.

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