Show don’t tell. It’s a classic piece of writing advice. As Chekov (allegedly) put it:
‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
But what does ‘show don’t tell’ really mean?
At the most basic level, it means the words shouldn’t be expository. They shouldn’t tell the reader what’s happening, but should describe the effects of what’s happening. Instead of telling us a character is sad, the words should show us the pain etched on their face, their struggle in putting words together, their reluctance to take part in a conversation. Instead of telling us a character is fearful, the words should show their frantic movements and their raised heartbeat.
One of the big show don’t tell ‘errors’ is in exposition. This is ‘stuff the reader needs to know in order to understand what’s happening’. It’s background or backstory, or maybe technical details. It could be details about the world (especially in ‘other-world’ genres like fantasy and science fiction).
There’s a danger of this becoming an info-dump—a passage that only exists in order to explain stuff to the reader. It can slow down pacing, and can drag us out of the moment.
A way around this is through dialogue, especially if one character is unfamiliar with the world or the situation. Then, a different character, one who is immersed in the world or situation, can explain things to the ‘new’ character. But this still has its problems. Readers aren’t stupid—they’ll see through this ploy unless it’s done well. Why is that character explaining all about the wizards from the north while the characters are running from the goblins? Why is that mysterious shady character suddenly talking like a textbook while telling the protagonist about that super-computer the bad guys have been working on? Why are those two servants telling each other what’s going on in the stately home when they both know all this stuff anyway?
(This last example is often referred to as ‘maid-and-butler’ dialogue—‘As you know, my dear, the master is due back from his recent convalescence at the coast,’ and so on.)
Descriptions (of characters, setting or objects) can cause issues too. Rich, vivid, poetic descriptions have their place, but for many books (especially genre fiction), the story is more important than the writing. Purple prose (fancy writing) can seem out of place. So a talented writer will embed the description in the action. For instance, rather than describe a character as tall, we’ll have the character reach for an object on a high shelf. Rather than being told that a character is loud, we’ll have them dominating a conversation. Rather than painting a picture of a desert with words, we’ll have a character suffering from the dry heat.
So what are we to make of passages like this, from James Patterson?
‘Justine Smith was an elegant, serious-minded, academically brilliant brunette in her midthirties. She was a shrink by trade, a forensic profiler, and Jack Morgan’s number two at Private. Clients trusted her almost as much as they trusted Jack. They also adored her; everyone did.’
(Private, Chapter 4)
This is straight description. Patterson’s not showing us who Justine Smith is, he’s telling us.
Is this ‘wrong’? Does this make Patterson less of a writer?
Some will argue that he’s a ‘popular’ writer, not a ‘good’ writer, but he’s one of the most commercially successful writers around. That doesn’t make him a hack—it means he’s a writer who delivers what his readers want, and does so with such skill that they keep coming back for more. And, as I mentioned before, readers aren’t stupid. The average reader might not know why a book doesn’t work, but they’ll know when they’re bored, or when the story just doesn’t work.
There’s more going on here than meets the eye, clearly.
Let’s take a step back.
‘Show don’t tell’ is a classic piece of writing advice. But it’s not a rule. In writing, there are no rules, only guidelines. Even grammar and spellings are fluid. While writing guidelines can help turn a messy first draft into a finely-crafted book, they aren’t set in stone. There are times when it is ‘better’ to disregard a particular guideline.
Patterson writes fast-paced thrillers. His readers want the buzz of the journey, cutting from scene to scene, racing through the story. They want—and he delivers—stories that start fast and don’t let up.
If Patterson rigidly followed ‘show don’t tell’, he’d have to slow things down when introducing a new character such as Justine Smith. He might write a conversation between her and a colleague or friend, or include a scene showing her at work. He’d have to take his time to paint a picture of her, to show us how her clients trusted her, so show us her brilliant mind at work. He might have others comment on the elegant way she wears her clothes, have someone moaning that they could never pull those combinations off. He’d throw in comments about her brunette hair and her age. He’d have to show how everyone adores her, with at least one example of why this is the case. He’d need to show her character over a conversation, a scene, maybe more.
And instead of a short paragraph, we’d have pages or chapters introducing Justine Smith to the reader. Those readers who want a fast-paced thriller would have closed the book before the story continued.
‘Show don’t tell’ is advice, not a hard rule. It’s a tool. A writer of Patterson’s standing, with so many satisfied readers, isn’t after fancy, award-winning prose. He’s telling stories. To do this successfully, he uses the tools in his writer’s armoury as and when they’re needed.