Breaking Down Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell is a considered a tenet of good writing, but what does it mean exactly?

Robert McKee’s Story has a chapter on exposition that breaks it down nicely. One thing (there are many) I appreciate about McKee’s book is the respect he gives the audience (or reader). He writes how audience members gain IQ points the moment the house lights fade. They’ll spot something cheesy a mile away. It may cause laughter where none was intended as this infamous clip from a screenplay penned by Norman Mailer demonstrates.

A similar thing can happen in a novel, and nothing cues the eye roll faster than the dreaded telling not showing. The reader requires certain information in order to understand the story, but the method of delivery must be chosen wisely.

From McKee’s Story: Exposition means facts—the information about setting, biography, and characterization that the audience needs to know to follow and comprehend the events of the story.

I’m currently Reading Dune, and there is a lot of exposition in that story, most of it delivered through a technique known (derisively) as head-hopping. Characters’ thoughts fill in much of the exposition in that story. This is probably not the best approach, but somehow in Dune it works, only because there is so much information to impart.

McKee’s advice is to parse out the information bit by bit, make it invisible, and dramatize it so that you’re furthering the conflict while giving up information.

For example, let’s say it’s necessary to convey that two of your characters are old school chums. You wouldn’t want to have Bob call Steve and say, “how’s my old school chum and former best friend who stole my girl doing?” But you could work out the problem by having Steve call Bob out of the blue and let it slip casually that he and Bob’s former girlfriend (let’s call her Pamela) have split up. They chat about this and that, keeping it light. Steve asks Bob for some favor (seemingly benign) that advances the plot. Bob agrees. After they hang up, Bob pulls his dusty high school yearbook off the shelf, and finds a picture of him and his former best friend looking carefree and happy. He thumbs through the yearbook until he finds a picture of the stunning Pamela. Suddenly, he is experiencing the pain of the betrayal. The emotion is still fresh after all these years.

McKee is tough on the photo pan cliché, but I think you get the idea.

There are now questions forming that will keep the reader turning the pages to find out the answers. Will Pamela and Bob get together after all this time? Steve casually mentioned that Pamela took off, but is she actually missing? Did Steve kill her and is now trying to use Bob to cover up the crime or (more dramatically) pin it on him? Bob begins to get pulled into the story and the reader is (hopefully) right along with him.

McKee advises to hold out on exposition, to “reveal what the audience absolutely needs and wants to know and no more” and to use “exposition as ammunition, something characters use in their struggle to get what they want.” Maybe Bob decides to double-cross his former friend and finally get his revenge, something we don’t find out until the final climax, but understand completely because all the traps have been laid out perfectly.

Points to remember

  • Your reader is smart. They will see right through the dreaded “info dump.”
  • Pace your exposition. Don’t give it all up in the first chapter. Let the reader discover it along the way.
  • Make the exposition as “invisible” as possible.
  • Use exposition as ammunition, something your characters use to get what they want.
  • Always dramatize the exposition. If the scene doesn’t advance the plot, cut it.
  • Save the best for last. Hold out on the big reveal until your reader absolutely needs to know the truth.

The possibilities are endless, and that’s what makes creative writing so much fun.

My take on McKee’s STORY.

Be smart with your exposition, and your stories will shine!

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