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Life lessons

on the craft 

Secrets of "Show Don't Tell"


Something like this has definitely happened to you: You’re watching a movie and in an early scene two characters meet. They have some brief, relatively innocuous exchange, and you think, “I bet they fall in love by the end of the movie.” The movie ends and, sure enough, the couple lives happily ever after. Early in the movie and with just a few seconds of action, the director gave the audience everything they needed to know.

Writing is no different. Just as a director points the camera at exactly what s/he wants to show on screen, you as the writer “point the camera” to determine what your readers see. You use ink and words while a director uses light and film, but the concept is the same. You’ve probably heard this as “Show Don’t Tell”. But understanding the action as merely a viewer requires a different set of skills than crafting the scene as a writer. Sure, everyone says, "Show Don't Tell"... but what does that even mean? For the next several articles, I'm going to dive into the actual craft elements that make up this over-used and often misunderstood mantra.

Let’s take a closer look at the aforementioned scene:

Two strangers hustle down the office corridor. Rounding a corner too fast and distracted, our hero and heroine collide. Papers fly, people trip, exclamations! The camera focuses on spilled paperwork as the soon-to-be couple gather their mess. They accidently touch hands. The actors pause so the camera can zoom in on hands touching... and the camera stays on hands touching, and stays on hands touching (and maybe a quick close-up of a face just for good measure so the audience sees their subtle smiles) – and then some third party says something and the hands snap apart and the camera cuts to a wider shot and the heroine and hero go on about their business.

As the audience, you inferred romantic interest from the extended touching of hands and the extra hold in the characters’ smiles. By holding the camera on the touching hands or the curling smiles just that little bit extra, the director has clued the audience into how the characters feel. In writing, you can do this, too. I call it the action-image. The concept is simple: Give the image of an action that creates the feeling.

Give the “image” of the action, not necessarily the action itself. Also, you “create” the feeling, not directly communicate the feeling. Many newer writers fall victim to stating the obvious, the abstract, or the vague. Sure, they communicate the fact... but not the feeling. Something like, “She thought he was handsome” or “He lost himself in her green eyes.” This is NOT what a director does.

A director has the benefit of an actor and a close-up shot. Thus, directors can rely on a handsome smile or a flirtatiously curling lip -- all of which comes from the specific actor portrayal, not the writing or directing. As a writer, you do CANNOT "rely on your actors". In other words, do NOT rely on facial descriptions or expressions, and you certainly CANNOT rely on “look” verbs. As the writer, you are the director, actor, lighting supervisor, director of photography, craft services, et al. Using an image-action allows you to fulfill all these roles.

As a writer, you create images – not really that much different from the images you see when you watch a movie. What action creates what image and what meaning does that extra image have? To explain this idea is remarkably simple. But, as a writer, to actually create the image-actions... well, that’s much more difficult. (I make this caveat not to sound cynical, but rather to excuse any faults in my examples below).

Because each story requires different image-actions and because context matters a great deal (though it’s a cycle because using this image-action tactic creates the context), there’s no broad-brush way to determine “good” or “bad.” There are, however, “specific” and “not specific”.

Let’s start with a less-specific image-action and sharpen it to something more specific to see the differences. Let’s stick with the office collision from above.

The characters have collided and the papers are on the floor. They’ve got other things on their mind, so they don’t really notice each other as they gather papers. Then, the man and woman meet eyes. You as the writer want to indicate that the man is at first attracted to the woman physically, and also notices something more special about her aura.

Bad action-image

He felt attracted to her. There was something comforting about her.

How many people have been attracted to others? How many people have a vibe or a persona that exudes a certain feeling? Answer: pretty much everybody. This description is too broad. Do not rely on delivering facts. Also, never expect your readers to know what you mean in vague descriptions.

Improved but still too broad action-image

He felt butterflies in his stomach, but they disappeared at the sight of her beautiful smile.

We’ve moved from vague feelings to specific actions... but into clichés. Better, but not good enough. Let's "zoom in" further. What’s the most specific detail we can imagine in someone’s happy smile?

Better image-action

Her dimples could have held raindrops, and a line of red lipstick dashed across on her front tooth.

If the write shows the woman's deep dimples, that indicates she’s smiling (though never mentions smiling nor mouth). If she has a dash of lipstick on her teeth, that indicates she cares about her appearance (at least professionally), but also has a foible a potential lover might find endearing. Thus, by showing the readers the most specific action-image, you indicate all the broad events and abstract feelings, while keeping the readers' attention on the unique elements of each character.

Zoom in. Give the image of an action that creates the feeling.

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