You’ve heard it a million times: show don’t tell.
What does that mean? Is it true? And does that mean you should never use exposition?
Sometimes – sorry, O great literary oracle – but sometimes you have to ignore perceived wisdom and break the rules. Sometimes you have to use an adjective or adverb. Sometimes you must write about what you don’t know and, yes, sometimes you should tell rather than show.
Before we examine exposition and its uses, let’s first take a look at what we mean by
Show don’t Tell.
So, what does it mean? Well, the idea is to make the narrative alive so the reader has the fullest understanding of the writer’s intent, to see what the writer sees. Here is what showing is:
Showing is Specific
Showing gives us numbers, colours, varieties. Like the devil, the impact is in the details. Supposing we wrote:
Tony sat in the chair.
Now, there’s nothing really wrong with that. You’re telling us what Tony did. And as we’ll discuss later, there are times when that’s perfectly adequate. However, if you’re trying to paint a picture, to show what Tony did, felt, or both you’ll need to give us more.
How did Tony sit? Was it an exhausted collapse? Was it a jaunty sitting facing the back of the chair with his legs on either side? For that matter, what sort of chair do we mean? A kitchen chair? An armchair?
“Tony dumped the groceries on the floor and collapsed onto the kitchen chair, resting his head on the table…”
Now you can see him, can’t you? It’s an image and you can do something with that. Depending on where this moment sits in the narrative it may be sufficient. But maybe we can do more.
“Tony flung the grocery bag onto the floor. The wine bottle cracked and in seconds the bread, oranges and condom packet seeped through the brown paper bag in a sticky red mess. Well, she could just damn well clean it up. He’d done his bit. He sank into the kitchen chair and held his head in his hands.”
This approach tells you so much more about Tony’s mood and in the details lies a hint of why he’s upset. Showing gives us numbers, colours and varieties.
There’s a lot of colour in my third version of Tony’s bad moment. We see a brown paper bag, oranges, sticky red wine… We know he’s in the kitchen and sitting in the kitchen chair. Does it matter what either of those things looks like? Not really. Tony’s focus is on the accident and on his own despair. We don’t focus on the kitchen because he’s not paying attention to it. Which brings us to this:
Showing is Selective
All writing is selective, of course. No writer tells every moment in their character’s day. Even in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn only relates key moments in the course of Ivan’s day.
The author must select those details that illuminate or intrigue. In my third example above, I’ve listed some of the contents of the grocery bag. Why those? Because they create a vivid image in my mind. There’s no meat or milk mentioned, for instance. And yes, I could have had a milk bottle break except milk tends to come in cartons these days, and the imagery of spilled red wine is much more vivid than spilled milk, not to mention the cliché the latter immediately recalls. But the bit that stands out is the condom packet. Since Tony is obviously upset, we can infer that there’s an issue between him and his wife, or whoever ‘she’ is, possibly relating to having children. Or maybe one of them has a sexually transmitted disease. Maybe she’s contracted hepatitis or HIV and that’s proof that she’s been cheating on him. We don’t know. I don’t know. But I think that sentence would entice me into the story far more than ‘he sat on the chair.’
The odd one out is always going to draw the reader’s attention. Suppose you’re writing a story about a teacher on her first day at work in a new school. All the students are eager, intelligent, well dressed, well-fed… Except for one. Who’s going to capture the teacher’s attention? And ours? A list of anything is dull. A list with one startling variable is memorable.
Showing is Active
Look at the verbs I’ve used in my last example: flung, cracked, seeped, clean, sank, held. There’s only one weak verb, “done”, which works in the paragraph because by the time we get to it Tony himself is out of steam.
Even when a person is sleeping they are active. They snore, roll over, cough… Shouldn’t our prose be active too? Try to avoid weak verbs such as variant of ‘to be’ such as was, were, are… For instance, “The boy is taller than his father” is weaker than “the boy towers over his father.” If you are not familiar with the difference between strong and weak verbs you might want to look them up because they can really elevate your writing.
Sure, you can tell us Harry loves Sally, but it’s better when he shows us. In the novel I’m writing at the moment, I want my main character to signal to the reader that he loves his wife. The problem is he’s not ready to admit it to himself yet. At the beginning of the chapter I’ve established that she’s in Paris. There then follows a conversation in which his wife is only briefly mentioned. Then the chapter ends with, “I glanced outside. Rain mixed with sleet was falling and there was a driving wind. I wondered what the weather was like in Paris.” Note, he doesn’t tell us he misses his wife or is worried about her. He allows the reader to make that connection for herself.
Chekhov said rather than describing the moonlight, the writer should show the glint of moonlight on broken glass. In other words, give the description some emotive value. Also, don’t give us a flat statement about what the character is feeling. It’s better to drop the hint and let the reader do the work. Readers are smart and they like being treated that way.
There are few writers more accomplished than Aaron Sorkin. In the last episode of season two of The West Wing, the president has to decide whether to run for another term or not.
Early in the episode, Sorkin has a character observe that when Bartlet (the president) puts his hands in his pocket, looks away and smiles it means he’s made up his mind to do something. The episode ends with a reporter saying, “Mr President, will you seek reelection?” A lesser writer would have Bartlet say, “Yes.” Sorkin has Bartlet put his hands in his pockets, look away and smile. In other words, Sorkin shows us, rather than tells us.
Telegraphing the characters emotions is important and doing it well takes skill. A young, very inexperienced novelist may say, “Harry loves Sally.” A slightly more experienced writer will say something like, “Harry’s heart beat faster whenever Sally came into the room…” Which at least gives us an objective detail and allows the reader to draw the obvious conclusion. However, it’s pretty clichéd. Try to find something that’s unique to them. In Gaudy Night (1935) D.L. Sayers shows us how Harriet Vane has, after five years and several novels, finally fallen in love with Lord Peter Wimsey. Peter realises it when he catches her watching him when she thinks he’s distracted by reading her notes. Even though he says nothing, Sayers tells us, “he breathed as though he’d been running.”
IS EXPOSITION THE BIG NO-NO?
Others would disagree. Hemingway would probably have me shot. Still, in my opinion exposition gets a bad rap. There are times when it’s OK to use. More than that, there are times when it’s even preferable.
Exposition is OK when…
You need to change the rhythm. Too much detail, page after page, can be tiring for the reader so changing the pace by occasionally switching into exposition can make the narrative more engaging. Rhythm is as important for literature as it is for music.
I would say, though, that exposition is best at the beginning or the end of a dynamic scene. If the hero is about to get attacked by the villain this probably isn’t a good time to tell us that Sinclair, the bad guy, hated brussel sprouts when he was a boy.
You’re describing minor characters or events. If your heroine has to go to the bank and leaves five minutes later, we don’t need to know every detail of the teller’s life. If your protagonist doesn’t pay much attention to these minor characters, why should your readers? The narrative should focus on the things the protagonist is focused on.
The scene needs a build up to the action. Suppose your hero is driving to meet with some friends before they stake out the killer’s house. We probably don’t need to know all the details of the drive or the evening because the action won’t really begin until something happens at the stakeout. On the other hand, you can embed small details to build up the tension: tell us the time at intervals, for instance: “It was seven o’clock now and Murray needed to be at Rickman’s house by ten… Nine-fifteen, time for one more drink…” and so on. It’s exposition but it is leading us inexorably towards the tension.
You need to add a layer of emotion to give resonance to a scene. Handled well it can be fabulous. Unfortunately, it’s very, very easy to get it wrong.
In the scene from The West Wing that I described above there’s a sense of triumph. The president has several compelling reasons not to seek reelection. It’s going to be a major battle. It will challenge him and the people he cares about. He has to make this decision immediately following the death of one of his oldest and dearest friends. But knowing all that background makes his non-verbal assent all the more potent.
If you tell us something early on, if you handle it with delicacy, and then give us a scene later that recalls what you’ve told us, you can add great emotion to your story. Be very careful, though. This can easily slip into the mawkish and trite.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
Suppose you write a scene in which your heroine has a car accident. Rather than show us her shattered body, you can show us a bloody shoe lying in the road. Chekhov’s light on broken glass again.
But what if earlier in the story you told us how the girl had saved for three months to be able to afford her first pair of Monolo Blahnik’s? Now what’s the impact of that shoe?
The best ways to avoid this becoming mawkish are to avoid overdoing it. One mention would be enough and put it early enough in the story so the reader doesn’t really remember it until that accident. If you tell us every three pages how much money she’s saved and all the arguments she’s had with her boyfriend about spending cash on something frivolous, well, by the time she gets into that accident the reader will be fully expecting to see that shoe lying on the ground, and the reaction will be ho-hum.
It’s music, my friends. The sight of that shoe is a crash of cymbals.
You need to condense events. If, for instance, the narrative skips over several days or even years, you might want to give the reader a brief explanation to signpost that to the reader. “John Murray Kinnear you are sentence to eight years….” Followed by, “Eight years later, Kinnear stepped out into freedom…” But you need to tell us something about what happened during that eight years. You can do it right away or you can turn it into a flashback.
DON’T try to get around exposition by forcing it into unnatural dialogue. This is when you have one character say, “As you know…” or the listener respond with, “Why are you telling me all this?” In both cases, the reader has to wonder why you are telling the character something he already knows.
There’s a scene in The Great Muppet Caper when Diana Rigg pops up and gives an impromptu description of her brother. Miss Piggy says, “Why are you telling me all this?” To which Rigg replies, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”
Exposition shouldn’t be an information dump. Selection is key. Find the one thing that stands out in the setting, in the character.
DON’T just randomly plop your exposition anywhere. Think about what it’s doing to the narrative and to the rhythm of your story.
DON’T try to get around exposition by squeezing in flashbacks all over the place. Sure, there are times when a flashback is powerful and works well, but if you do it every page or two your reader will get whiplash.
The bottom line is this: Don’t be scared of exposition. Certainly you wouldn’t want to read an entire book that was just telling and not showing, but used carefully and in the right place it can actually make your narrative stronger.
No matter what Hemingway might say.