Show don’t tell – its subtle power

You are probably aware of the writing mantra: show don’t tell.

There are loads of really helpful posts about it, often illustrated by the pitch-perfect Chekov quote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass,” so I won’t go too deeply into the concept here.

What I do want to explore is the subtle power of show don’t tell. It’s more than just using dialogue and action. It can be as simple as getting the verb to do the work of an adjective:

The sliding glass doors closed behind me.

The glass doors slid closed behind me.

And it can be powerful enough to show what a person or relationship is like without describing them. Let me show  you a couple of superb examples.

This first one, from Alan Hollinghurst’s Man-Booker winner, The Line of Beauty.

Showing the secretary’s sunglasses on top of her head gives an instant picture of what she’s like. And it’s so economical.

The second is from another Man-Booker winning author, Ann Enright. This is from The Green Road, (one of my all-time favourite books).

On the surface she’s describing the kitchen, but what she’s really doing is showing us not only what Hugh is like, but also how his relationship works with Hanna, the protagonist.

Ann Enright and Alan Hollinghurst have spent years honing their craft and they have the faith in their writing, and in their readers, to do more with less. But like you, they had to start somewhere.

Giving your reader space to make their own connections takes practice. If this is new to you, perhaps your first step could be to look out for similar subtle examples of showing in the books you read. (Take a snap on your phone and build yourself a collection.) As you get a feel for it, you could review a current draft to see where there are opportunities for showing rather than telling. With practice, you will start find yourself making those choices as you write.

Good luck intrepid writer.

If you want to read more about giving your reader space, here’s an earlier post.