“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
In this quote, the Russian writer Anton Chekov (1860–1904) was making clear reference to what has become stock advice for fiction writers on paper, screen and stage. Chekov was not alone. Henry James (1843–1916) is noted as leaving pencil-marks in the margins of his notes, reminding himself to “Dramatize, dramatize!”
From the Staff Choices bookshelves of BluntNib, here is a more contemporary example:
Evan Marshall writes in The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing that ‘Whenever possible, focus on details which add realism like nothing else. Don’t just write “The subway station was shabby.” Write: “Near the edge of the platform, a man with knotted hair held out a Dixie cup to no one in particular, calling, ‘Spare some change? Spare some change?’ Swirls of iridescent orange graffiti covered the Canal Street sign. The whole place smelled of urine and potato chips.”
Instead of flatly stating a situation – as in a shabby subway station, showing not telling (or dramatizing) a situation means letting the reader or audience discover what it is you are trying to say through action and dialogue. For the writer of novels, Robert Mckee’s advice in “Story” is highly relevant… It would be too easy to write “He’s been sitting there for a long time.” The novel writer can learn from the screen writer “What do I see on the screen? …Perhaps ‘He stubs out his tenth cigarette,’ ‘He nervously glances at his watch,’ or ‘He yawns, trying to stay awake’ to suggest waiting a long time.”
Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. But do not over do it! Telling can be useful, in order to compress time and move the story on, otherwise you might end up with a pretty long narrative!