The phrase “show, don’t tell” is repeated so often in writing advice that it’s become trite, the province of smug practitioners everywhere who write blog posts like this one to deliver their wonderful new shibboleths of wisdom to puny writers a month or two behind them who haven’t worked it out yet.
So when I realised something that’s been dawning on me slowly while writing my current draft can be reduced to those words, I hesitated before writing any further. It's so obvious, right? Writing 101.
I used to think I was pretty good at showing. My early drafts were a mass of impressions, one after the other. I stripped out phrases like “I thought”, “I saw”, “I watched" like varicose veins. Scenes flipped into each other without a clear reason why - the connections were missing. When I did stand-up I suffered from this (though it can be overthought - one of the mistakes comics make is to focus too heavily on the logic of their set).
Logic - that’s it! Logic has always evaded me. Can’t do it. No patience for it. Whether I’m writing essays or stories or trying to understand economics, I can’t keep my focus for longer than about
Hmm? Oh yes. My problem, I diagnosed, was a surfeit of show. Not enough tell. So I worked hard on that narrative voice, and how it told the story, getting from A to B. I got a bit too bogged down with it from time to time, shuffling my scenes like cards and coming up with different orders, a different development every time, different logic.
Sometimes all at once. It got confusing. Worse, my narrative voice got a bit too overweening, and now that it was first person (new thing - or an old thing, really - it started way back in 2011 like that, went into third person for a good portion of 2014, and now back again), a bit of a barroom bore.
So when something in the story clicks, and another character comes into focus, and then a proper scene between two or more people, and suddenly it’s possible to pour all your narrative and description into dialogue or action - there’s nothing like that feeling.
This is telling a story! I’m telling a story! It’s working!
That’s what it feels like.
And I wanted to write about it, then I realised it boiled down to “show, don’t tell”. And I wanted to thump my keyboard with frustration.
It does come down to that. But what it shows me is just how profound that advice is, how it affects every word you write, every element of a story.
What I would say is this - the advice shouldn’t be “show, don’t tell”, but
“tell it, then show it"
That’s the process I had to go through anyway. Starting off by trying to show everything ended up with a big ol’ mess. So tell it first, understand what you’re trying to say, and then - and only then - show it.