Pointless Showing and Good Telling

My students are working on showing and telling. It’s a difficult concept to learn, and I’ve found over the years it’s not that easy to teach.

So as part of an upcoming short story assignment, I’ve started to introduce the concept of “pointless showing” to define the practice of avoiding clear language in the misguided belief that “being obscure instead of direct” is the same thing as “showing instead of telling.”

  • Pointless Showing: “A stream of thick red substance sliding from the jar into the pot… the long strands in the pot, undulating and flowing like hair, like Lucy’s hair, took on the crimson hue, and moments later the silence of the empty apartment was broken by the slurping sounds of eating. Or was it weeping? Not even the absent Lucy would have been able to tell for sure, even if Jack could have choked out the question. He reached for the cheese grater, held it to his chest, and ground, ground, ground his love into Lucy’s favorite dish.”

    [What the hell? Showing isn’t simply about being obscure. It’s about choosing details carefully, in order to lead the reader to figure out, on his or her own, what precisely the details show.]

  • Good Showing:

    “Bill still cooked himself pasta with the sauce he made Lucy’s way. He hoped he might learn to love pasta, but feared Lucy had learned to loathe him.”

    [This scene uses plain language to tell what the character is doing and thinking… but it doesn’t come right out and tell the significance of each action, or announce how Bill feels at any particular moment.  This version

    SHOWS something that is not explicitly stated in the pasta example — that Bill associates Lucy and pasta in his mind, and that the habits he has developed about pasta echo the habits he has developed around Lucy.  There’s no big dusty book that says “Pasta is a symbol of romance,” but if the scene progresses so that the pasta catching fire, or Bill throws it away and cooks something else, or he chokes on the pasta and throws up on the floor, we can figure that’s a hint about Bill’s chances for a relationship with Lucy.]

See also Planning Your Short Story