Last Saturday, I attended one-day seminar/workshop put on at the Cambridge Writing Retreat on the subject of ‘What Does Show Not Tell’ Actually Mean? The instructor was Emma Sweeney, a novelist and literary instructor, who was both knowledgeable and interested in the development of the four writers attending. Aside from me, there were three female writers: two novelists and a flash fiction writer. The particular seminar I attended is part of a novel writing course put on by the Cambridge Writing Retreat over the course of a year, and the Retreat is the brainchild of Gaynor Clements, a poet with an MA in creative writing; it is put on in her attractive and spacious farmhouse.
The day started with Emma defining the terms. Both Showing and Telling relate to what is in a character’s mind: feelings or thoughts. Showing is accessing the world through our senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. Showing is describing a character’s reaction to one or more of the five senses to give the reader a clue of what they may be feeling or their attitude. Telling describes the character’s thoughts or feelings directly. Showing a close interaction – as for example, smelling a rose – can be quite powerful but can feel claustrophobic; showing a distant interaction tends to keep the reader at arms length. The literary preference is to use showing as much as possible, as this engages the reader in sensing the direction of the narrative, rather that being told the direction of the narrative. Telling is best used when the author wishes to throw doubt on what a character has previously done or said; that is, to suggest that the character may be changing his/her mind. If we are describing an emotion through telling, it is best to anchor it in an analogy or image.
Our first exercise was to go out into the garden and try to experience something close and distant with sight, smell and hearing; we were also asked to experience something close with touch and taste. As the farmhouse garden has many herbs, flowers, shrubs and trees as well as chickens, dogs, sheep, birds and interesting vistas, this was not a difficult task.
We were then asked to write a scene in which one of our characters does something out of character using action, gesture, dialogue and a description of the setting. This took forty minutes, during which time Emma spoke one-on-one for twenty minutes with two of the other participants about the status or their writing and any concerns or obstacles they were facing. The two of us who had completed our scenes read them out for discussion.
When setting a general scene, it is good practice to follow it up with a more specific, detailed scene.
After lunch, we began to read and discuss excerpts as follows:
- Hills Like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway. This short story is almost all show and very little tell; the reader’s mind has to work to keep up with the narrative.
- Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller. The excerpt uses Tell to cast doubt on the protagonist’s version of events.
- Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The beginning of Chapter 4 is used to raise a number of questions to keep the reader’s interest.
- The Web of Belonging, by Stevie Davies. The excerpt uses an unusual words and layout to express the conflict a character is feeling
Our last exercise was to write a scene in which a character has an epiphany, starting with the external world, moving to the character’s mind, and concluding in the external world. I had a plan for this one, but didn’t complete it because I had twenty minutes with Emma. We talked about my concerns: creating more tension in the narrative and being less kind to characters.
The day gave me just the ammunition I needed to defeat the mystery of Show vs Tell.