The history of “show, don’t tell”


I’ve collected instances of the advice “show, don’t tell” from across time.  Here they are, chronologically.  I’ve blogged a couple of them before.

The Wikipedia page on “Show, don’t tell” lists some more recent ones.  (If you read that page, be aware that while Hemingway was a “show, don’t tell” writer, “iceberg theory” is a claim about depth of backstory, not about “show, don’t tell”.)

China, 551 – 479 BC, Confucius

Confucius asked his students their ambitions. The first to answer said that he wanted to help weak countries get stronger. The second said he wanted his people to live a well-off life. The third said he wanted to be a master of ceremonies.

The last student said, “In Spring, having put on my spring clothes, I would like to bathe in the Qihe River with a group of adults and children and, after bathing walk back together, singing as the wind blows our hair dry. This is my ideal, teacher.”

Confucius made no comment on the first three grand ambitions but commended the last. The sage could see from the carefree scene the student described his social ideal and political ambition – of people living and working happily in a peaceful and harmonious social environment.

                — retold in “Confucianism and Chinese Art”

Greece, 350 BC, Aristotle

Aristotle said something that sounds, in retrospect, like “show, don’t tell”:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… in the form of action, not of narrative. … Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.  Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.  Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions.  Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.  Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character.

                — Aristotle (350 BC), Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher.  From Part 6.

But while he was emphasizing the importance of action, he was contrasting men’s actions with (and judging it more important to drama than) their character.  So on second thought, it sounds like he was saying something different.

But on third thought, character can be revealed:

1. by description:  Scrooge was a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!

2. by the character’s spoken declarations about ethics:  “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

3. by another character’s description of the character:  “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge!”

4. by the character’s speech acts:  “Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?”

5. or by action:  At the ominous word ‘liberality’’, Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.

1, 2, and 3 are “telling”.  4 and 5 are “showing”.

In dialogue, ancient theater used character revelation types #2 and #3 almost exclusively.  #4 is a more modern technique that requires the playwright to be more aware of multiple perspectives, and to let different characters state different ethical views–which Victor Schlovsky (I think; I’ve mislaid his book) said Greek playwrights didn’t even do until Euripides.  #1 is not available in drama at all, so Aristotle had seen mainly #2, #3, and #5.

Now, what did Aristotle mean by “character”?

If you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents….  Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character.

                — Aristotle, Poetics, Translated by S. H. Butcher.  From Part 6.

Adding this to the context that Aristotle is contrasting “character” with “action”, it seems that by “character,” Aristotle meant what the character is or says; by “action”, what he does.  So in Aristotle’s context, in which only #2, 3, and 5 are available, “action [#5] is more important than character [#1-4]” is indistinguishable from “show [#4-5], don’t tell [#1-3]”.

Spain, late 12th century, Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd (Averroes)

Poetry should not employ the weapons of rhetoric or persuasion.  It should simply imitate, and it should do so with such vivid liveliness that the object imitated appears to be present before us.  If the poet discards this methods for straightforward reasoning, he sins against his art.

                — Umberto Eco (1959), Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages.  Yale University Press 1986.  Translation of “Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale” from Momemti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959.  Summarizing Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, p. 310-44 [name of book not given!], who was citing Averroes, the 12th-century Islamic scholar known to the West (through Aquinas) as “the Commentator” on “the Philosopher” (Aristotle).

Russia, 1886, Anton Chekov

Many websites attribute this great quote to Chekov:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. tried to track this quote down.  The oldest instance of it they found was in a 2002 book,The Quotable Book Lover.  The closest thing they could find to it that Chekhov wrote was this letter he wrote to his brother Alexander in May of 1886:

In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.

                — Anton Chekhov, The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Noonday Press (New York, 1959).  “Introduction”, p. 14.

America, 1927, E. M. Forster, with a contrary opinion

“CHARACTER,” says Aristotle, “gives us qualities, but it is in actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse.”  We have already decided that Aristotle is wrong and now we must face the consequences of disagreeing with him.  “All human happiness and misery,” says Aristotle, “take the form of action.”  We know better. We believe that happiness and misery exist in the secret life, which each of us leads privately and to which (in his characters) the novelist has access….

There is, however, no occasion to be hard on Aristotle. He had read few novels and no modern ones… and when he wrote the words quoted above he had in view the drama, where no doubt they hold true….

The speciality of the novel is that the writer can talk about his characters as well as through them or can arrange for us to listen when they talk to them­selves. He has access to self-communings, and from that level he can descend even deeper and peer into the subconscious. A man does not talk to himself quite truly—not even to himself; the happiness or misery that he secretly feels proceeds from causes that he cannot quite explain, because as soon as he raises them to the level of the explicable they lose their native quality.  The novelist has a real pull here.  He can show the subconscious short-circuiting straight into action (the dramatist can do this too); he can also show [tell] it in its relation to soliloquy.  He commands all the secret life, and he must not be robbed of this privilege. “How did the writer know that?” it is sometimes said.  “What’s his standpoint?  He is not being consistent, he’s shifting his point of view from the limited to the omniscient, and now he’s edging back again.”  Questions like these have too much the atmosphere of the law courts about them. All that matters to the reader is whether the shifting of attitude and the secret life are convincing, whether it is πιθανον [“likely”, says Google translate] in fact, and with his favourite word ring­ing in his ears Aristotle may retire.

                — E. M. Forster (1927).  Aspects of the Novel. Harcourt (Orlando, Florida, 1955),  p. 83-84.

America, 1947, Cleanth Brooks

Having in mind the scheme proposed, one could say that a poem does not state ideas but rather tests ideas. Or, to put the matter in other terms, a poem does not deal primarily with ideas and events but rather with the way in which a human being may come to terms with ideas and events. All poems, therefore, including the most objective poems, turn out on careful inspection to be poems really “about” man himself. A poem, then, to sum up, is to be judged not by the truth or falsity as such, of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by its character as drama – by its coherence, sensitivity, depth, richness, and tough-mindedness.

                — Cleanth Brooks (1947), The Well Wrought Urn. Harcourt & Brace (Orlando, Florida, 1975).  Appendix 2, “Problem of Belief and Problem of Cognition”, p. 256.

America, 1979, Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren

Warning:  When they talk about describing a character, they use “directly describing” to mean “summarizing” (telling), and “indirect” to mean “indirectly describing”, by which they mean “indirectly summarizing”.  That in turn means “indirectly not directly depicting”, or “directly depicting”, which means “showing”.  When they talk about dialogue, they reverse the terms: by “direct discourse” they mean writing out everything the characters mean, or “showing”; by “indirect discourse” they meaning summarizing what they said, or “telling”.  I’ve inserted [showing] and [telling] to clarify.

How shall the author present his character? Directly, with a summary of his traits and characteristics [telling], or indirectly (that is, through dialogue and action [showing])?  The very nature of fiction suggests that the second method is its characteristic means, yet direct presentation is constantly used in fiction, often effectively.  Much depends upon the underlying purpose of the story and much depends upon matters of scope and scale.  If the author made every presentation of character indirectly, insisting that each character gradually unfold himself through natural talk and gesture and action, the procedure might become intolerably boring.  “The Necklace” indicates how direct presentation—and even summary presentation—can be properly and effectively used.  (Look back at the first three paragraphs of this story on page 66.)  But when he comes to the significant scenes of the story, the author of “The Necklace” discards summary in favor of dramatic presentation.

The danger of direct presentation [telling] is that it tends to forfeit the vividness of drama and the reader’s imaginative participation. Direct [telling], descriptive presentation works best, therefore, with rather flat and typical characters, or as a means to get rapidly over more perfunctory materials.  When direct presentation of character becomes also direct comment on a character, the author may find himself “telling” us what to feel and think rather than “rendering” a scene for our imaginative participation.  In “The Furnished Room,” for example, O. Henry tends to “editorialize” on the hero’s motives and beliefs, and constant plucking at the reader’s sleeve and nudging him to sympathize with the hero’s plight may become so irritating that the whole scene seems falsified.  Yet in D. H. Lawrence’s “Tickets, Please,” we shall see that direct [telling] commentary–and even explicit interpretation of the characters’ motives–can on occasion be effectively used by an author.

An author’s selection of modes of character presentation will depend upon a number of things. His decision on when to summarize traits or events [tell], on when to describe directly [tell], and on when to allow the character to express his feelings through dialogue and action [show], will depend upon the general end of the story and upon the way in which the action of the story is to be developed…

Indirect discourse [telling], like [“direct”] character summary and description [telling], is a quicker way of getting over the ground, and in fiction has its very important uses.  Notice, for example, in “War” that the husband’s explanation of why his wife is to be pitied is indirect discourse [telling]: “And he felt it his duty to explain… that the poor woman was to be pitied, for the war was taking away her only son.” But the speeches of the old man who argues for the sublimity of sacrificing one’s son for one’s country are given as direct discourse [showing]. The importance of the old man’s speeches to the story, the need for dramatic vividness, the very pace of the story–all call for direct discourse.

                — Understanding Fiction by Brooks & Warren, 3rd edition (1979), from the intro to chapter 3, “What Character Reveals”. (Not present in the 2nd edition.)