Many people seem very confused with the phrase ‘show, don’t tell’ when it comes to writing. After all, how can you show with words? Isnt that telling?
Yes and no.
Technically, yes, it is telling to some extent, but that isn’t what we are talking about when we say ‘show, don’t tell’.
When we say ‘show, don’t tell’, what we are talking about is using descriptive words to show your characters emotions instead of telling the reader what your character is feeling.
Take this for example:
(Telling) Jon was angry.
(Showing) Jon stomped into the room and slammed his door shut. Fingers clenched deep into his palms, almost to the point of bleeding and if he gritted his teeth more, they would break apart. The mirror was his first victim, and it shattered when it met his fist. The blood didn’t slow him down as he reached for his computer monitor and hurled it through the glass window. The posters ripped off the wall, and the mattress broke in half from his fists. And when nothing was left, he stood in the middle of the room, in the wreckage, and bit down on his bloody hand. Hard. And screamed before the tears escaped his eyes.
Bad example, because it was quick, but you see how one draws you in more than the other? Why?
It all comes down to this.
What we imagine is much more powerful than what we were told. When we are told that Jon was angry, we only assumed he would act as though we were angry. When we are angry, do we punch mirrors? Toss computer monitors? Tear our posters? Shatter our windows? No, we don’t. Most of us anyway.
But when we are showed how angry he is, we can only imagine how angry he must be in reality. Always remember this rule: our imagination is a powerful tool. Give the readers hints through actions and the environment, then let them figure out what is going on and how the character feels.
When you are describing your characters, keep this in mind as well.
(Telling): Josh was a punk.
(Showing): Josh walked in then and leaned against the door frame with a cigarette in his mouth. On his arm, a tattoo of skulls and names traced in ink ran up until it hid underneath leather studded jacket. He took a puff of his cigarette and blew it in my direction and the smoke hid his purple hair, shaved cleanly on both edges and made a tall Mohawk. Inside his pocket, a jackknife. I froze. I couldn’t breathe..
Now im not well versed in the punk scene, so forgive me. But you see how the showing is much stronger than the telling? We get the idea that Josh is a punk because of how he acts and how he looks. He blows smoke in the narrator’s face, so he’s inconsiderate. He leans against the wall so he’s carefree. He has a tattoo, a Mohawk, and a studded leather jacket, so he doesn’t look anything like the conventional person would.
Another good way to describe a person’s personality is to have the surrounding others react to him or her. Like in the same example, when the narrator catches sight of the jackknife, she instantaneously becomes afraid. So not only is Josh a punk (as described by his actions towards the narrator, and how the narrator and the audience sees his appearance) but we also know that he is violent, as seen how the narrator reacts to the sight of the knife. In that single paragraph, we get glimpses into Josh’s personality not by how the author tells it, but by how Josh’s appearance and actions are described and how the narrator reacts to it.
Be like a detective. Give clues so that the reader can deduce how a person is. The same thing can be said about emotions and environments.
If you want an environment to be memorable, your character has to react to it.
(Telling) There was a bed and on the other side of the room, there was a window directly above a desk.
(Showing) I opened up the door and immediately walked into the dark bedroom. I dropped my luggage to the floor, which made a loud clank. Something broke, I’m sure, but right now, my eyes were closing despite my best efforts. It also didn’t help me that the bed felt like a warm cloud. Before my eyes shut, the last thing I gazed upon was the open window, where the moonlight was shining through onto a desk. That is where I shall write my project.
Another terrible example, but you know what I mean. In this entire scene, the most memorable thing is the bed, because we remember how the narrator reacted to it. It was warm and comfortable; enough to make him almost instantaneously fall asleep.
Some authors like to describe things in extraneous detail. Like someone spent an entire page describing a door one time. Unless that particular object is of importance aka relative to the plot, omit it.
In this case, the narrator who described the door in detail remembered it so because when he walked through that door, his entire life was changed. So it worked.
Also, be careful of filtering.
Filtering is when you use a word that filters the experience. These words and sentences are also called ‘thought verbs’ and they draw the reader out of the character, when you ultimately want the reader and the character to be one.
Examples of filters are:
1) He decided to turn left.
2) She thought about it for a moment.
Simple fixes to these.
For the first one, you could easily just remove the thought verb ‘decided’.
1) He turned left
The second example is more complicated, but could still be fixed through some showing.
2) When he finally revealed to her that her best friend was in love with her, she sat there in silence and stared off into the ocean waves.
By removing the filter words, we stay drawn to the characters. We stay connected. And telling and filtering breaks those connections.
But there is a time and a place for everything. You don’t need to show everything, and you don’t want to tell everything.
The way I think of it, think of telling as reflexive and showing as emotional. In scenes where you want to elicit the characters emotions, show them. In fast paced scenes where the characters have no time to think, tell them. It’s really, all about the pacing.
Now onto my review of James Dashner’s the Maze Runner.
The reason why I talked about Show, don’t Tell is because the Maze Runner is ALL TELLING AND NO SHOWING.
We are constantly told that Thomas is angry. That he wants to punch someone. We are never shown how angry he is. It’s really hard to get invested into a character when the POV character sounds like a damn drone. I’ll discuss POV characters in a later rant.
Which isn’t to say that the book is entirely bad. The fast paced action sequences were actually pretty exciting. And that’s what telling is good for. When your character doesn’t have time to think, you should tell.
But don’t make everything tell. The emotion is where the novel failed. And it failed miserably, enough to not make me read the sequels and the prequel.
I think one of the lines that made me want to throw the book out of the moving bus window was: Then Thomas snapped. He completely and utterly snapped.
-furiously bangs head on desk-
A perfect example of this is at the end of Maze Runner where Chuck is killed by Gally and Thomas mourns his death.
I didn’t feel anything at this scene at all. It was just another scene to me. It felt forced.
And here’s why:
Thomas and Chuck never really did anything for or with each other. Chuck is barely mentioned throughout the length of the novel, and even Thomas’s promise to get Chuck out was forced too because it came from nowhere.
Now I am going to compare this to another death: Rue from the Hunger Games.
In a lot of ways, the characters are similar. They are both characters that the protagonists care deeply about and when they die, it has an everlasting impact on the protagonists. But the writing makes the impact different, as well as their circumstances. Chuck is to Thomas as Rue is to Katniss (supposedly).
So what makes Rue’s death so much more powerful than Chuck’s?
It’s simple: Thomas has no relation to Chuck other than he is the kindest person in the Glade. Thomas knows nothing about Chuck, and Chuck knows nothing about himself. The best way to add emotional attachment in between these characters is to have them do things together. Suffer hardships. Show that they are best friends.
With Rue, not only do we get that she is the oldest of her family, but she also loves music, just like Katniss. Also what makes her death notable was that she is the youngest competitor in the games. So it’s already heavily loaded even before you get to the fact that only one person can win the games.
The biggest and most impactful part that makes Rue so significant is how much she means to Katniss. She sees Rue in the same light that she sees her younger sister, Prim. Young and innocent, and totally undeserving of the Capitol’s wrath. We see to which extent Katniss went to save Prim from the Hunger Games. We are already shown how she sacrificed herself for Prim, and therefore she was willing to do the same for Rue. And when she is with Rue, she makes a mental promise to herself that if only one person is to win the games, it has to be Rue. Unfortunately, the tragic irony happens when Rue is caught during Katniss’s plan to sabotage the Careers and as a result, Rue dies. So instead of Katniss sacrificing herself for Rue, Rue sacrificed herself for Katniss, so that Katniss would win the games. She agreed on the plan after all.
Then when Rue dies, Katniss does things for her in honor of her memory. She creates a bed of flowers for Rue for all of Panem to see. That they aren’t just pawns in some game. That they are people.
It’s not over. And this was the kicker for me that had me crying on a bus ride to work that earned me a couple of strange stares. The night after Rue’s death, Katniss is feeling horrible and hungry. She feels like she failed Rue and Prim simultaneously. But she gets a package of bread with seeds in it. The bread is from District 11, where Rue was from. Katniss appreciates this offering, especially after considering how late in the game it is, and the price of delivering food for the competitors is really high. She assumes that the poor District 11 must have scrounged up every penny they had to send her the bread as a token of appreciation for her acts for Rue.
All of these things show us that Katniss and Rue have a genuine sisterly connection and is also an example of how to write a death.
For a death to matter, the MC must have an emotional attachment to the dead character before he dies. Thomas had little to no emotional attachment to Chuck before he died.
The death must linger after it has happened. Rue’s death lingers farther past book one of THG and leaves Katniss feeling terrible. Like a failure. Thomas still didn’t seem to care that much about Chuck mainly because he knew nothing about him and they did practically nothing together.
The death of someone affects everyone who ever knew the person even if only for a little moment. If you have read all of THG, Rue’s death also didn’t affect Katniss and District 11, but Peeta as well. He paints a picture of Rue in the testing room before the game in Catching Fire. Chuck’s death affected nobody else other than Thomas, and even then it felt forced.
PS: I would even go as far as to say that the death of Rue sparked the beginning of the rebellion. It was only then that Katniss realized Peeta’s words. They aren’t pawns in a game. They are people.
Because we are shown that Katniss and Rue had a deep connection, her death was much more significant. It touched all of us who read it. We were never shown the connection between Thomas and Chuck, but instead just told through extraneous dialogue and terrible writing. Therefore it’s less significant.
That in itself proves the power of showing. After all, showing is only the words that put the power of the imagination at work. Especially since the imagination has the power to elicit powerful emotions. Remember that the imagination has more power than you understand.