LISTerati: 10 Quotes about Showing vs. Telling

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell!” I can hear my first writing teacher belt out before our in-class writing assignments. And if you’ve ever read the old letter that David Mamet wrote to the writers of the Unit, you’re probably certain that telling must be illegal. But, everything has it’s place and this is no different.

Telling actually tells us what’s going on, where we are, and can move the story along. Showing gives us the viceral, emotional response to what’s going on. It’s where the five senses are drawn upon, where we sink into a scene and lose ourselves. It’s all about striking the right balance between the two.

What I’m learning from chapter 2 of Mary Carroll Moore’s book, Your Book Starts Here, is that Outer Story is about telling and Inner Story is about showing. However, if you find yourself in the doomed Land of Exposition, “telling” too much, or need some inspiration or a reminder about “showing,” you’ll enjoy this list of quotes from famous authors who believe that the ability to “show” should be in every writers’ toolbox.

1. “An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” -Stephen King

2. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please, will you do my job for me?” -C. S. Lewis

3. “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov
Yes, yes, yes, we hear you Chekhov! I love this example; it’s clear and to the point. You can find a wonderful breakdown of this quote here.

4. “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.” – James Scott Bell

5. Notes: This scene was clipped from Chapter 11 “Complications.” It bugged me to remove it, but I couldn’t put my finger on why that was, so I let it go. When it was too late to put it back, I finally realized what was bothering me. Though I refer to Bella’s clumsiness in gym several times, I never really show it in action. This was the one time that Edward was “watching,” and thus the natural place to showcase that clumsiness. Ha ha.” -Stephanie Meyer

6. “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”  -Ernest Hemingway

7. If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. -Ernest Hemingway

This one’s probably my favorite Hemingway quote. I’ve found it to be true many times over when standing back for a closer look at my own work. If you want more of Hemingway’s tips for writers and an elegant, detailed description of his writing space in Cuba, check out  my favorite clips in this post. (And there are links to the full interview, too.)

8. Any dickhead with a bluesuit can be (and is) taught to say “make it clearer”, and “I want to know more about him”. When you’ve made it so clear that even this bluesuited penguin is happy, both you and he or she will be out of a job. [..] any dickhead, as above, can write, “but, Jim, if we don’t assassinate the prime minister in the next scene, all Europe will be engulfed in flame”.  –David Mamet’s master class memo to the writers of The Unit

 Yes, it’s crude, blunt, even offensive to some. But it’s also brilliant.

9. “When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.” (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886) -Anton Chekhov

Yes! We can see the ‘dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf.’

10. “Don’t lecture your reader; she won’t believe you. Give her the story action, character thoughts, feelings, and sense impressions as the character would experience them in real life. Let her live the story for herself as she lives real life, by experience.” -Jack M. Bickham

A few links to wrap it up:

  • If you’re looking for a more detailed explanation of Showing vs. Telling, check out this post. The writer does a brilliant job of explaining it.
  • Another really good one from The Beginning Writer blog.
  • My post with my Hemingway quotes can be found here.
  • You can follow my journey through Mary Carroll Moore’s book, Your Book Starts Here, here.
  • You can purchase Your Book Starts Here at Amazon.
  • If you want more wisdom from Stephen King, his book, On Writing, is one of my favorites ever. Some of the best advice on the craft of writing and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

What are your thoughts about Showing vs. Telling? Do you have a favorite example to share? You can leave in the comments section below!

Happy Writing,

Ellie

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David Mamet’s Letter: Showing vs. Telling in Storytelling

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov

Since I’m working my way through Chapter 2 of Your Book Starts Here, by Mary Carroll Moore, I’m paying extra special attention to inner story and outer story—the difference between the two and how to strike the right balance. Since Moore brings up “showing vs. telling,” I reminded me of this letter that was brought up in a writing class I took a few years ago. The letter is from director David Mamet and addressed to the writers of the short-lived TV show, “The Unit.” It is crude, to the point, educational and hilarious (in my opinion). It’s targeted at TV writers, but I think any writer could get something about it. I got so much out of it that I used to have it hanging on a corkboard in front of my desk. Enjoy! 🙂

TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT

GREETINGS.

AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.

THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN *DRAMA* AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF *INFORMATION* INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.

OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.

THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.

THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT *WILL* BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS *YOUR* JOB.

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

THIS NEED IS WHY THEY *CAME*. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET *WILL* LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO *FAILURE* – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS *OVER*. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE *NEXT* SCENE.

ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE *PLOT*.

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”

AND I RESPOND “*FIGURE IT OUT*” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE *ABOUT* HIM”.

WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE *WILL* BE OUT OF A JOB.

THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. *NOT* TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME”

WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO *REALIZE* THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

YES BUT, YES BUT YES *BUT* YOU REITERATE.

AND I RESPOND *FIGURE IT OUT*.

*HOW* DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? *THAT* IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO *DO* THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.

FIGURE IT OUT.

START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE *SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC*. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.

THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, *YOU* ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

DO *NOT* WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR *AND* HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.

REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. *MOST* TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE *RADIO*. THE *CAMERA* CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. *LET* IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS *DOING* -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY *SEEING*.

IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF *SPEECH*. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO *START*.

I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE *SCENE* AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT *ESSENTIAL*? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?

ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.

IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.

LOVE, DAVE MAMET
SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05

(IT IS *NOT* YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO *ASK THE RIGHT Questions* OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)

So there. Thoughts? Anything you want to add to this? For me, Mamet sums it up nicely. 🙂

Ellie

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A blast from the past… Cranberries “Ode to My Family”

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