“Show, don’t tell” is a familiar refrain that all writers should have heard many times. If you’re a writer and haven’t heard it yet, now you have. But the concept bears a closer look. Take for example, the popular phrase, attributed to Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
In fact it seems that the quote in question is most likely a paraphrasing of Chekhov’s writing advice, but the point stands. Consider the difference between “the moon was shining,” and “the moonlight reflected on broken glass.” In the former case, we’re doing little more than suggesting a little about the time of night, the lack of clouds, and that the moon was out. In the latter, we’re introducing mystery, and the hint of danger.
The idea is, search for more expressive ways of describing things. Don’t just provide a picture, dive deeper than just simple explanations. Another way of saying this–that my writing professors taught–was to “unpack” ideas. Open up the explanation and provide details, and depth. Look at the same image from a different perspective–move your mental camera to a new angle and see what you can see from there that gives your story something fresh to deliver to the reader.
I hit the writers I work with “show don’t tell” a lot, because at first the concept is a bit vague, and takes some getting used to. It isn’t writing more description, it’s going deeper into the existing description, or finding a new way to express that description, so that the reader can be delighted. Consider this:
An ex-cop chases and kills some rogue robots, one of them saves his life, then he runs off with a girl robot at the end.
This will always be very high on my list of favorite movies (warts and all), but stripped of the details, Blade Runner has no particular draw to it. The writer has to show what’s going on in deep in the characters’ minds and hearts, and bring (or drag) us into the world they live in. Blade Runner at its heart isn’t about robots, because, going back to another writing professor’s words, all stories are ultimately about humans, warts and all. Don’t tell us we have warts, show the ugliness–and the beauty beneath.
On to part two, “More About Broken Glass.”
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