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Blue Square


Life lessons

on the craft 

Constructing Show, Don't Tell

Even on the ski slopes, style matters. For about two seasons, my best friend wore gray ski pants and a slightly darker gray jacket. His skis were white and his helmet was gray. He jokingly called himself the “Monochromatic Man.” And in the snow (or worse, actual heavy snowfall), he disappeared easily. Then, he bought a new ski outfit – brighter pants and a more form-fitting jacket – and he his appearance, and even his ski style, popped! How you look depends on the pairing of each article of clothing.

Writing is no different. In the past two blogs, I’ve written about how to zoom in and how to understand your characters’ deeper psychology. Now, let’s dive into how to pair your sentences to construct the Show, Don’t Tell idea. Just like my best friend’s ski outfit, if you write vague or broad sentences, they won’t stand out. But if you pair your sentences correctly, Show Don’t Tell comes easier.

To actually construct a sentence with the Show, Don’t Tell mantra, let’s consider the basic example:

It rained. He slipped on the grass.

If I asked you WHY he slipped on the grass, you’d easily answer: “Because the grass was wet and slippery.” Yet... wait... nowhere in that example does it say anything about wet and slippery grass – only that “grass” is where he slipped. So, why are you correct?

Our brains use inductive logic. This means that we take key details, we expand upon those details, and we understand the larger elements around them. Rained = water. Water = wet. Wet = slippery. Slipped on grass = glass is slippery. Our minds put this all together in a split second. We understand the overlapping and weaving of details and context. We understand that if a character drops something, he must have picked it up earlier. And we understand that if she shakes his hand, they have walked across the room in order to do so.

This, however, does NOT work the opposite way. Our brains CANNOT create a specific image or implication from something vague (well, we do this – but our understandings are wildly inaccurate and even more varied). If I write, “He was a bad man,” you don’t really know what “bad” is or what he’s done that’s bad. This is, obviously, Telling. To Show that "he is bad," I might write he cheated on his taxes, but that’s a different kind of bad from a man that kicks his neighbor’s dog, and that’s a different kind of bad from a man trying to conquer the world. Specific images Show the larger ideas, but larger ideas never Show the specific images. When you pair specific images that readers combine (using inductive logic), the see the cause-n-effect relationship.

So, if you’ve understood your characters’ deeper psychology and you’ve zoomed in on the action, the next step is to write the action-reaction-interaction pairings. This allows your readers to understand through implication. To create Show, Don’t Tell, you want to build your sentences around the key verb. Ask yourself, "What image do I want the readers to see?" The answer to that is your sentence’s core (and what you include can matter just as much as you exclude).

Scenario: The narrator is visiting his grandmother, who’s not aging well. Let's look at how different action-reaction pairings Show different types of "not well".

Telling Physical Age

“Hi, Gigi,” I said. Oh man, she was not aging well. She looked really old. I gave her a hug.

Notice how this example only comments (Tells) that she wasn’t aging well. We readers don’t have any details. There is no action-reaction from which we infer. This example builds sentences around weaker verbs like “looked” and “gave” – which aren’t really action-reaction verbs.

Showing Physical Age

“Hi, Gigi,” I said. I hugged her. Her ribs felt brittle.

Notice how the narrative zooms in on only a single factor – her ribs. That key detail allows the reader to use inductive logic to understand. Brittle = weak. Weak ribs = unhealthy. Unhealthy + Old = not aging well physically.

Telling Mental Confusion

“Hi, Gigi,” I said. She looked at the remote control confused. She must not have heard me. “Gigi, I’m here,” I repeated but she didn't react. She kept trying to figure out the remote control but couldn’t.

Readers are Told that the grandmother is confused and can’t figure anything out, but we don’t actually see the actions-reactions that Show her confusion.

Showing Mental Confusion

“Hi, Gigi,” I said. She pointed the remote and pushed hard on the remote control’s rubber button. The TV remained black. “Gigi, I’m here.” She pursed her lips and she bent her brow at the remote. She pressed the button again, holding it down while poking her hands toward the TV. The TV’s blank face stared back at her.

The words “confused” or “tried” or "couldn't" (words that Tell her state of being) don’t appear in this example, yet the readers clearly see the character’s confusion. The pairing of her action + remote/TV’s reaction (or lack thereof) indicate she’s doing something wrong. Then, her repeating the action indicates she doesn’t understand she – and not the TV – is doing something wrong. The narrator gives the readers all the specific actions and reactions that he uses to form his conclusion. Thus, the readers form their conclusions at the same time as the narrator. That's the essence of Showing.

More than the specific sentences above, notice too how the TYPE of actions creates the TYPE of struggle. A hug paired with a description of ribs. A hello paired with a technological action. A pointed remote and an unresponsive TV. As the author, when you focus on quality pairings of action-reaction-interaction, you bring the reader into the story. You SHOW them.

Just as my best friend appeared like a more stylish skier by pairing bright pants and bright jacket, so too your writing will have a brighter style when you pair key actions to Show the readers.


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