|"Television! Teacher, mother, secret lover." - Homer Simpson
“Show, Don’t Tell” is one of those writing rules that shows up everywhere. It’s simple, to the point, and an important thing to keep in mind while writing.
It’s also never made sense to me. I mean, I know the difference between the two, and I know I’m not supposed to tell, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized why it really separates good writing from bad.
Ok. This is going to sound like a tangent, but I’ll get there, I promise.
My favorite TV show at the moment is “Terriers.” Raise your hand if you’ve seen it. …Yeah, that’s what I thought. First of all, that’s a shame because its horrendously low ratings were the reason it got cancelled after 13 episodes. And second of all, it’s shame because it has some of the best writing and most superbly subtle acting I’ve ever seen.*
I’m not going to go into a long description of the show except to say it’s about an ex-cop and an ex-thief who become P.I.s and solve mysteries and it’s like no other show on television. It is smart, funny, poignant, brilliantly-paced, and streaming right now on Netflix. Watch episode 1 and say goodbye to your weekend.
What got me thinking about this show and the writing and the acting was something its star, Donal Logue, said about one day of production. Donal’s character, Hank, discovers his genius but borderline younger sister has been sleeping in the ceiling of his house. He coaxes her out, and she spends the next few episodes helping out, getting in the way, while Donal tries not to say or do anything that would lead her to hurt herself.
They were going to shoot a scene with her, and the script had her say something like, “I’m uncomfortable being down here. I want to get back into the ceiling.”
The actress, Donal’s real-life sister Karina, stopped. She didn’t want to say the line. Her character would never come right out and say something like that. But, the director protested, this is an important point that the audience needs to know, you need to say the line.
No--she said--you pay me to act so that I can tell the audience what they need to know without words.
The director was floored, the other actors were floored, and she got her way--they cut the line. She nailed it, by the way.
This is what I’ve been thinking about a lot, the difference between show and don’t tell. I think some writers can get scared to put so much trust in the reader to pick up subtle clues or character notes or plot points, and the impulse to come right out and say what you want can be very strong.
It can take a lot of trust in your own ability to show the reader what they need to know without coming right out and saying it. But ultimately, that’s the job of a good writer, to rely on your own writing to get your point across.
And now, every time I hear “Show, Don’t Tell,” I hear “Don’t say you want to get back into the ceiling.” It’s a little clunky, but I like it.