“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov
If you’ve been writing for any significant length of time, I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying: “show, don’t tell.” Essentially, instead of explaining something about a particular character, setting, or situation, you should, with your description, dialogue, and action, illustrate your point. For example, instead of telling us, “Joe was happy as he walked down the street”, you could say, “Joe, with a grin wider than a Cheshire cat’s on his mug, sauntered over the cobblestone walk so effortlessly he could swear that his feet didn’t even touch the ground.”
I was recently reminded of the idea of “show, don’t tell” by a TV program I was watching a couple of weeks ago. It was a version of the Godfather movies in which Godfather I and II were combined and some cut footage was reinstated. One scene right after the famous opening wedding scene really illustrated for me the idea of “show, don’t tell”. Don Corleone’s long time friend and consigliere, Genco, is dying in the hospital. Along with his sons the Don goes to see him. Up until that time we only know that Vito Corleone is the head of a powerful crime family. Now, seeing his old friend at his bedside, Genco beckons him to come closer. Knowing that Don Corleone cannot refuse a favor on his daughter’s wedding day, Genco makes this remarkable request (the text is excerpted from the novel):
“Godfather, “ he said, “stay here with me and help me meet death. Perhaps if He sees you near me He will be
frightened and leave me in peace. Or perhaps you can say a word, pull a few strings, eh?”
From this one visceral scene we learn the perceived power of the Godfather. There is no description of who he is or what he does. But, we see this is a man whose very presence engenders dread, a man who commands respect with just a word or gesture. We learn volumes about him.
Another example comes from the movie, Patton. As the audience, we know from magazine articles, history books, and word of mouth that General Patton is flamboyant and tough. But, when we see the opening scene, the portrayal by actor George C. Scott of the smartly dressed, medal blanketed, gravel voiced, foulmouthed man strutting on a stage as he exhorts his troops to fight, riding crop in hand and pear handled six-shooters strapped to his hips, we know, without a doubt, this is the man who’s going to win World War II for us.
In my recent medical thriller, The Peril Protocol, I tried to follow the command in a scene in which my protagonist, Dr. Hope Allerd, has to take over the intubation (a life saving procedure) of a dying patient from Bryan, an intern. Instead of telling that Bryan was unsuccessful and that Hope had to take over, I wrote it as follows:
Now, Allison seemed to shrivel before [Hope’s] eyes. Semiconscious,racked with a menacingly high fever, and
covered head to toe with bluish macular lesions, she dwelled in that purgatory between life and the netherworld.
Bryan squinted and pushed the tube into the young woman’s throat again only to bring it back out.
Seconds went by. Her skin, the part that had been light pink, now took on a dusky hue.
The head nurse scowled at him. “I called Dr. Allerd.”
He looked in the direction of the door. “What? No. I can...”
“You’re losing her, Bryan,” said Hope. “How many attempts have you made?”
“Naw, I’ve been counting. It’s three. Three strikes and you’re out.”
Hope stepped next to him. Her slim five-foot six frame was like a dwarf’s next to his six-three muscular build. She took the
instruments from him and bumped Bryan aside with her hip.
In your writing, find instances where you can show and not just tell. You’ll have a more powerful, more instinctual narrative to give to your audience.