In the first part of this tutorial, “Glint on Broken Glass,” we talked about the idea behind Chekhov’s famous quote, “Don’t tell me the moon was shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” from which we get the shortened “show, don’t tell.”
Although the concept is simple to understand in the abstract, making use of it in writing is a bit trickier. Part may have to do with the word “show.” First, let’s look at a “tell.”
I was depressed that she was gone.
In another posting on the “filmic” writing style, I note that novels are not screenplays. Think of the above example as a stage direction. It is a description of the emotion being felt by the character. In other words, the writer is saying to the reader, “the character felt a certain emotion.”
In an attempt to fix the problem of telling, many writers will then attempt to provide the “show” via details such as actions.
I was so depressed she was gone I drank a bunch of whisky and felt sick the next day.
This is getting closer to a “show” in the sense that we’re given an example of how depressed the person is. Although this is a more emotive passage, and begins to provide details about the level of depression, it’s still landing on the side of “tell.” Why? Details about the depression are one thing, but the reader is looking for the causes and effects, not just the symptoms exhibited. Showing the symptoms (in this case drinking whisky) is one technique, but you have to go deeper.
She’d been everything to me, and the agony at her loss wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, if ever. The best I could do was get so drunk that the pain in my heart was temporarily muffled.
Phrases like “she’d been everything to me” explain the depression. And notice that instead of details about the drinking (“I felt sick the next day”), we’re focusing on what the drinking does for the problem (“the pain in my heart was muffled”). Descriptions are always going to be a substitute—at best—for reasons and causes.
Got it all sorted out? If not, have a read of part three in this series: “Shoot The Glass!”
If you’re looking for an editor or proofreader, here I am. Read about the services I offer and get in touch!