Sunday, 23 March 2008

Show don’t tell…

I read an excellent screenplay, Nightshift, by Oliver L. Jeffery (read it here) which got me thinking about the way writers tell their stories, and the advice one is often given, 'show, don't tell'.

The novel is in a direct line from the storyteller beside the fire, with his listeners gathered around him, who would naturally be doing more 'tell' than 'show'. 'Once upon a time there was...' is pure 'tell'.

Films and television, on the other hand, are relatives of the stage. They deal only in 'show'. With their universal availability the public have got used to pure 'show', and this has infiltrated our attitude to novels.

A hundred years ago Bram Stoker wrote, ‘The Count…was very courteous and very cheery in his manner’ – today you’d be told to show his courtesy and cheeriness by his speech and actions. And indeed, it's often better to do that. But have we gone too far in this direction? I think perhaps we have. A novel is not a film. Actors will not be fleshing out the written words.

Novelists have to make it happen in the minds of our readers, and 'tell' is a useful weapon in our armoury, along with everything else.


  1. I'm with you here, Lexi, believe it or not! I have been hammered pretty hard with another bugaboo of so-called contemporary literature rules and that is The Dreaded Tangent.

    I think that both Tell and Tangent can and do work and it is just a matter of how well we do them. In my case I know I have to step back and really try to figure out if the Tangent in question adds to the reading experience (even if it is quite frivolous) or is just blathering on that seemed like a good idea at the time.

    For Tell I just think we have to look at it and see if it's the best way to get the info out. If there is a more involving, page turning way to do it, it' worth exploring. Maybe the Tell wins, maybe not.

    Keep warm!


  2. Gah! What's a Tangent? (In terms of literature, not geometry).

    Are Tangents thought to be Good or Bad?

    You've worried me now, because I haven't been worrying about them...

  3. Oh, my! Bless you even more!

    And yes, I find novels work a lot better as tell rather than "show", as you say, films and telly are collaborative - you've got the actors, directors, set decorators, editors and a plethora of other people who can elevate your script (or leave it bleeding in the gutter).

    Novels can get away with screenplay style structure sometimes - The Fight Club and The Beach, for example - but screenplays with huge novelistic tangents leave me screaming - you know you're in trouble when the screenwriter starts telling you about the characters' back-stories in the scene description. That said, I do have a tendency to 'direct from the page' on occasion!

  4. Lexi,

    To take a sample from my own meager output, check out pages 125-126 in That Book. I have a tendency, when introducing a character or explaining a reaction, to dredge something up from the past as illustration. Sarge and his experiences in Alaska for instance, is a Tangent, just me flying off the storyline a bit to add color. Other times it takes the form of Authorial Aside, which some readers get a kick out of and some find annoying. I think it can bring some fun and life to the process, others think I'm wasting time and paper. I think it has something to do with how much 17th to 19th century literature a person has read and feels comfortable with.

    The humble opinion here is the ultimate success of these deviations from the accepted modern norm has to do with the freshness and skill with which we can pull them off. And I imagine the ability to know when to rein things in in the service of the story is a good thing too.

  5. Another thing that novels can do that screenplays can't, through pure 'tell' is sum up vast periods of time without feeling like you're skipping over anything. Neil Gaiman cleverly uses this in the short story Goliath, where whenever this happens, it's because time's actually speeding up - but you don't notice it, because it's a prose convention.

  6. "Films and television, on the other hand, are relatives of the stage. They deal only in 'show'."

    Screenplays (the manuscript), except for dialogue, are mostly 'tell.'

  7. Yes, but the audience doesn't read it; it's translated into action, so doesn't count. Surely?

  8. Could not find a suitable section so I written here, how to become a moderator for your forum, that need for this?

  9. Thanks, Anon (if I may call you this) but if I had a forum, I'd moderate it myself.