Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Layers of Show, Don't Tell

Picture from Wikimedia by Swatjester
From what I've read, show, don’t tell is the number one advice given by editors and agents, and it certainly is a concept that is taken seriously in the writing world.  So get ready for a ton of links because this “rule” is discussed extensively all over the internet. 

I could just give you about twenty links and tell you to knock yourself out, and that alone would certainly be useful.  But I felt like this was an evolving concept for me, like every time I felt like I understood it, I soon realized I had only peeled off one layer and something deeper lay underneath.  Although now I think I get it, I won't be too surprised if in a few months I'll read something somewhere, and realize that there is still a whole other layer that I haven't scratched the surface of.  This whole layering metaphor makes the concept seem very complicated, but it's not.  At the core, it is very simple.  It just was a bit of a process to get to the core. 

I'm not going to explain show, don't tell.  Other writers and editors have already done that (and did a much better job than I could).  I'll give you those links at the end.  Instead I'm going to talk about those layers.

Layer 1-Description.  The simplest explanation of show, using words to paint a picture.  You don't just tell the reader the house was dilapidated.  You describe the one to one ratio of paint streaks to exposed wood, the crumbling brick chimney, and the sunken roof.  You don't say the dog was ferocious. You describe the bared yellow fangs dripping with foamy saliva, the deep-seated growl, and the bristled rigid posture. 

Details are the key, and the more specific they are, the more vivid the picture becomes.  In fact, you don't need that much description.  Just a few specific details can really bring the scene to life.

Layer 2-Emotion.  This is connected to description for sure, but I think we go one step deeper.  You have to show the emotions of the character not just tell.  You shouldn't just tell the readers that Sam was angry.  You show it.  "Sam closed his hand into a tight, shaking fist and punched the wall."   And yes, this is using description to paint a picture, but I am going one step further by adding characterization. 

I'm not just describing someone who is angry; I'm showing how Sam behaves when he is angry.  There are many different ways that people act when they are angry.  Sam could turn stoic, verbally abusive, he could just leave, or he could punch a hole in the wall.  It doesn't just show the reader that Sam is angry; it shows something about who Sam is.

Layer 3-What is unsaid.  This follows very nicely because it is also about characterization, but it is that added subtext that comes from showing.  If you never explicitly say what the characters are feeling, then the readers are left to deduce it, and a subtext develops.  Sometimes what isn't said is what is most important. 

For example:  I could tell you that Jen likes Dave, but he isn't interested in her, or I can show you through subtext.  Jen seeking Dave out after school, walking close to him and chatting about class while playing with her hair, and Dave not really listening, looking around the playground for his friends.  Readers pick up what is going on without anything being said through the subtext of how Jen and Dave interact.  It is far more interesting to deduce the relationship of the two characters through the subtext of their interaction

Layer 4-Immersive.  This is the core of show don't tell, IMO.  It really encompasses all the other layers and boils down to one simple explanation.  Show is using an immersive point of view whereas tell is using a more distant point of view.  Show is zooming in close to the POV character so that the reader can see, feel, touch, smell, and taste, basically experiencing what the POV character is experiencing. 

This allows a deeper emotional connection to the POV character as the reader is fully submerged in his/her experience.  And it encompasses all the previous layers.  Because when you are immersed deeply in a character's POV you aren't just seeing the scene but showing it through the character.  

That descriptive picture is now described through the POV character's eyes, not only do those vivid details still paint a picture, but it shows us what details are important to the POV character, and characterization is embedded in the description, so that the reader is shown the setting or person being described and who the POV character is in one deft stroke.  

The emotion isn't just being shown, it's being felt, experienced by that POV character.  We don't just see Sam punch the wall, we feel that anger build up in him and rage through him until he has to hit something.  And even the emotions by nonPOV characters becomes more powerful, because through the POV character's eyes, the reader doesn't just see their emotions but how the POV character interprets and internalizes their emotional outbursts or lack of. 

What isn't said is what the POV character doesn't know or understand or acknowledge.  No character is truly self-aware. What is interesting isn't just that Jen likes Dave who doesn't like her back, but that she doesn't realize he has no interest in her.  And we see her cluelessly reaching out to someone who is only being polite and reveling in those small moments when he acknowledges her while through subtext, we know to him they are meaningless.   

Therefore show can boil down to one thing, becoming immersed in the POV of the character.  In truly letting the reader experience the story through the POV character.  This is tough to do.  It is easy to tell what happens in the story, it is excruciatingly difficult to make the reader experience it.

Now for some caveats.  I think that there are different levels of showing in stories.  It isn't either show or tell, but a gradient between the two.  Where at one end is a distant narrator, shallow and all tell and the other end is fully immersed in the POV character, and there are an infinite levels of show/tell between the two.  Different levels of show are needed at different points in the story.  The more emotional the scene the more show is needed.  

Also not all stories work best with a deeply immersive POV, some are better off with more tell.  It depends on how emotionally connected you want the reader to be with the POV character. So it isn’t always best to show. 

So that is my journey of show don't tell.  Now I admit; I may be off the deep end in Layer 4, but maybe not.  It seems to work for me. So the next time a beta reader or editor suggests you show don't tell, consider deepening that POV and see if that solves the problem.


  1. Nice summary with these four "layers". And thanks for the links.

    1. Your welcome, Elizabeth. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Once upon a time, I read the most beautiful passage out of a book about peeling away the layers of an onion. I've always wanted to remember what book that was, and I hoped you were going to mention it. Oh well, maybe some day.

    This was a great post, and something I've really needed to think about. Adding emotion is the hardest for me though. It's always the very last thing to get put in. I don't know why, unless it's that I'm pretty private about my own emotions too, and my characters are never really very forthcoming about the way they feel.

    1. Sorry, Melanie, I don't think I've ever read a passage about peeling away the layers of an onion. Can't help you there.

      I struggle with adding emotion as well. I find I need to figure out what they do then add in what they feel. It's tough to convey emotions through words, but I think it makes powerful writing.

  3. MaryAnn, I have tried many times to explain to other writers why I think "show don't tell" really boils down to a deeper POV and I have always failed to convince them ;). But needless to say, I totally agree with you that the 4th layer, POV, is at the heart of it. After all, a writer is always telling, so the thing that makes a passage transcend "tell" is creating an experience in the reader, and usually it's connecting with the POV that does that. Great post!

    1. I found a great article once on the internet that essential said, whenever show, don't tell is pointed out in a critique, they are basically pointing out a POV violation or something like that. I tried to find it, but my googlefu failed me.

      But I think that is the only one I read that related show to a deeper POV. But I still think we're right. I doubt a scene written in a deep POV will get the your being too telly complaint. :)


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