Show. Don’t tell.
I came up with this dictum yesterday afternoon while I was out walking, and I offer it today to writers who want to hone their craft. What could be simpler? There is one thing to do and one thing not to do. Show. Don’t tell. Okay, if there were just one thing to do or one thing not to do instead of one thing to do and one thing not to do, that would be simpler. Point taken. But that’s not the way the world works.
It’s too bad I wasn’t around to offer this advice while some well-known writers were producing their novels. My advice would have elevated their prose if they had chosen to follow it. Take Charles Dickens and the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Dickens is telling, not showing. And here’s the thing: In this novel, he goes on to show that it was the best of times for some people and the worst for others. He shows us all the contrasting ages and epochs and seasons. The showing is well done. Kudos to Charles Dickens. But this opening sentence has to go.
Show. Don’t tell.
As we see in A Tale of Two Cities, following my advice can result in a shorter, pithier novel, but when we examine the opening of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, we see how following my advice can yield a longer, richer novel.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
Oh, please. Hemingway tells us instead of showing us. Maybe he decided to tell instead of show because he wanted to keep the story short in the hope that high school students would read it as a “choice book” and keep his sales going strong. If that’s the case, his ploy worked. Well played. But the book could have been so much better if he had developed it fully.
Take the opening words:
He was an old man…
This is lazy writing. Show us that he’s an old man. Have him lean over the side of the skiff and look at his reflection in the water. Yes, his reflection is hard to make out because he’s seeing it in an ocean current and not the still water of an ornamental pond in a garden, but it shows us that he’s an old man. Wrinkles, age spots, and white hair will get the message across. I came up with this idea of showing by using reflections last week while I was on one of my walks, and now I’m going through my collected works and introducing all my characters this way before I start a new round of submissions. Take a tip from me and have your characters linger in front of mirrors and department store windows when we meet them. Screens on cell phones and chrome bumpers on vintage cars and, of course, ornamental ponds in gardens will do the trick, too. Just be sure to mix it up when you use reflections to introduce characters. Your readers will thank you because, as they say, variety is the spice of life.
And not to beat a dead marlin, but check out how Hemingway ends that opening sentence:
… and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
Show us the eighty-four days. Your readers want to be in the skiff with the old man, out in the Gulf Stream all day long without a nibble. Let us know what’s going through the old man’s mind while he’s fishing. If you’ve fished, use that experience to provide detail about the fishing and make the story come alive. If you haven’t fished, focus on what’s going through the old man’s mind while he fishes. Try to remember a time when you thought of something and use that. In short: Write what you know.
More on that later.