The Craft: ‘Show, Not Tell’ and What It Might Mean

[This is part of a continuing series on the craft of writing fiction.]

Time to get back to the meat of this blog: the craft of writing fiction. Here’s one you’ll hear every time. In writing workshops..from editors…from other writers: “Show, Don’t Tell.” You will hear it all the time, but what it means varies from person to person. They will only agree that it’s vital to your writing.

From “The First Degree,” 1923. [Note: NOT Lon Chaney Sr.]

So, what might it really mean? Well, (credit where credit is due) during a recent writers’ meeting, I heard one of the better explanations from Kris Spisak, an editor and writer. She said that when people talk about “Show, Don’t Tell” they are usually talking about emotions or feelings. They are not necessarily talking about descriptions of a scene or a character or plot details, but about what people are feeling inside. So, when you’re writing a scene, stop and think a moment. Here is how she put it (in a rough paraphrase):

“How do people show emotions rather than tell you about them? That is, in every day life? If someone was nervous or happy or in love or depressed—without saying a word—how could you tell?”

She then had us writers do a thought exercise. If someone wanted to communicate something to you without using words, how would they do it? If they were angry, they might frown and huff. If they had just fallen deeply in love, they would act very differently. They might walk more lightly, sigh pleasingly to themselves, etc. What if they were in shock or had just seen an accident? They might have a blank stare or be slow to react to questions or conversation.

You could go on and on using different emotions. But the core idea is the same. When talking about “Show, not Tell” we’re really talking about human emotions and how people communicate them in non-verbal ways. They tend to not tell you about how they feel, it just comes out in emotions. (Dogs and cats are also great at communicating non-verbally. They both exhibit fear, contentment, anger in different biological ways.) So, as a writer, you have to think: “How can I show that Bob here is annoyed, without him actually saying it?” Or “How can I show that Ann is nervous?” And then write that into their body language, actions or (obliquely) in dialogue. That to me is show not tell, now.

There is one great medium for “Show, not Tell” by the way. And that’s silent movies. Instead of relying on dialogue those actors had to pack most of their emotion into actions and facial expressions. Now, I am definitely a Silent Movie Nerd. I got interested when I was a kid and we would rent videotapes (yes, for the VCR!), of old Chaplin and other silents. It was amazing to see these old, flickering images right on the screen. Later, when I moved to D.C., there was a great silent film series and I went to the matinees in libraries and small venues with proper live music and I was hooked.

I especially got into one guy in particular: Lon Chaney Sr. You best believe, if there was a Lon Chaney “picture” on, I was going to make it there no matter what. Telling my pals and anybody else, I was busy that night I would go across town to watch the movie on the big screen. Lon’s got that charisma you just can’t learn. You either got it or you don’t. He just sort of fills the screen and you can’t take your eyes off him.

I especially loved the closeups of his face. This was a revolutionary thing at the time. Actors for generations had been taught to emote to the back row of the theater. They had to. No one can tell what you’re feeling in the 28th row if you just smirk. The movie camera and the closeup changed all that. Now, audiences could feel like the actor was right there, just feet away. It’s true, Chaney was caught between these two worlds and he often over-emotes in the old Vaudeville fashion. But he also has these great, incredibly intimate closeups where you see his face turn just so, to indicate heartbreak, deep hatred, or, at long last, contentment and peace. They are stunning. What is it like to realize the love of your life just doesn’t care about you and never will? How does a man’s face change when he realizes his best friend–the person he considered a brother–was the one who betrayed him? What does a grifter’s face look like when he realizes his final grift won’t work? That he’s condemned to end up as one of life’s losers? You can read it all in Lon Chaney’s face. Phenomenal. And often devastating. Sometimes, technology isn’t all bad.

Hope you can see where I’m going with this. If Chaney can put these emotions-without-words in his characters, you can too. It’s not easy and you shouldn’t focus too much on facial details, but there is weight in a small gesture, a sigh, flopping onto a bed, or pausing in the midst of a speech. Just remember: Don’t overdo it. Don’t reach for maudlin, vaudeville tropes when a simple pursing of the lips will do just fine.

Alright, if you want to get more into Chaney, start with the links below. And then, as we are still mostly locked down, search for his clips on YouTube. And when all this pandemic crap is over, hunt out your local silent movie fanatics and make sure you see a Lon movie live on the big screen with live music accompaniment (if possible). That is after all, the way these things were meant to be seen.

Lon Chaney Senior on Wikipedia.
Lon Chaney and the Penalty, a great little piece from South West Silents, a silent movie blog.
– Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, from our own PBS here in the States.

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