4/11/2015 - StoryBlog
Show, Don’t Tell - But Wait...There's More
Cassie Cushing has posted an interesting blog about the use of the phrase, “Show, don’t tell” in regards to storytellers.  http://kaleidoscopecoffee.com/540/show-dont-tell-a-struggle-to-understand-in-tweets/

Her insights regarding her own discoveries and, at times, uncertainty concerning how to incorporate this much-used admonition are eye-opening. In addition, she lists a twitter exchange between herself, Sean Buvala and Tim Ereneta that sheds more light on the subject.

Of particular interest to me is Cassie’s unbridled quest for knowledge and clarification in the realm of storytelling, and her ability to simply ask, “Why, and what does that mean?”

So I am jumping in and offering my two cents worth on the subject of “Show, don’t tell.”

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We are told, “Show, don’t tell.” – But wait, there’s more…

First, let me say that I believe, “There are exceptions to every rule, including this one!” I certainly believe that applies here.

I think there are at least two parts to this caveat; the first (as Sean Buvala has stated and written about here) is about how the teller “shows” with aspects other than the words. This can be with gestures, facial expressions, body movement, pauses, breathing, etc. and other physical aspects of storytelling. Often, a glance or gesture can demonstrate to the audience what is happening without the words. One can pantomime opening the door slowly and cautiously, without actually having to “tell” the audience, “The princess slowly and cautiously opened the door.”

Using gestures, body, etc, in addition to the words can help emphasize what we are trying to communice. We can say, “The Princess smiled.” But in conjunction with these words, if we also physically smile, the audience experiences an enhanced image.

With this in mind, “Show, don’t tell.” actually turns into that old grade-school favorite, “Show AND Tell.” It’s not an either or, it’s both. This is certainly true for those tellers (I am one) who gravitate to the farther end of the spectrum between “Teller” and “Performer”.

Here’s another example: One can say, “It was three days later that the Princess realized her hair was falling out.” OR – one can take a long pause and breath to indicate the passage of time; THEN pull at your hair and show dismay on your face, as you look at imaginary strands in your hands and THEN say, “It was three days later that the Princess realized her hair was falling out.”

This brings me to the next phase of “Show, don’t tell,” that I call, “Show first, then tell.” (click here to see my short tip called “Wag First, Then Bark.”)

Let’s go back to the first example of smiling while you say that the Princess smiled. I believe there is even greater impact if one smiles before telling us that the Princess smiled. Sometimes this can be a “micro-second” before using the words, sometimes it can be a much longer smile, a pause, and then the words. Note again, “There are exceptions to every rule, including this one!” Making these choices is part of the crafting process, AND the “moment-to-moment” choices while performing a particular story, in a particular place, for a particular audience.

To sum up Part One of my thoughts, one uses the full array of gestures, facial and body expressions, etc., along with timing and breathing to: Show, don’t tell; Show and tell; Show first then tell.

Part 1.5 (just a side note here)
In creative writing, we are often taught that there are three ways to reveal what is going on to the reader:

  • Narration
  • Dialogue 
  • Action (this, necessitating the narrator describing the action)
     
  • Narration: The Narrator says, "She was angry."
  • Dialogue: The character says, "How dare you steal my dress?"
  • Action: The Narrator descrtibes the action: "Cordelia's face was bright red. She waived her fist in her sister's face. She could not contain the volcano that was about to erupt!

Part Two
This is what I believe to be the essence (in terms of words and language) regarding the “Show, don’t tell” construct.

Use words and language to show or reveal to us what is happening, vs. merely telling us.

The great playwright, Anton Chekov is credited with this quote:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on the broken glass.”

(For those who may be interested, this is a translation and what appears to be an extrapolation of something Chekov wrote to his brother, an aspiring writer. Here is a link to some interesting research regarding the Chekov quote: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/07/30/moon-glint/)

In its simplest form, here is an example:

Telling - “The Princess smiled.”
Showing - “The corners of her mouth turned upward, and the sparkle in her eyes filled the room.”

As story tellers and story crafters, we must remember that all of the above are only different techniques. There are no magic formulas…only suggestions.

Master storyteller Donald Davis has said,

“Storytelling is the way we move important pictures from our head to someone else’s head…and you can never spend too much time describing the scene, if you want people to see your picture.”

What is the best way to do that? How much is enough? How much is too much? How much is too little? Do you need more; do you need less? What will work the best? Some of the answers come from the golden triangle of story-storyteller-audience.

The final answer, in the moment of telling, comes from the master storyteller known as YOU.

©Mark Goldman 2015

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For more information contact Mark Goldman - 602-390-3858 - Mark@Storytellermark.com

 

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