Sunday 9 October 2022

Writing Tips: Show and Tell 2

Should you follow the advice to "show, don't tell"?

Characters are constantly grimacing and gesturing with their fists to express emotion, because the author has apparently been told it’s not writerly to merely tell the reader what’s happening. But what that emotion is precisely is not clear, and so everyone strides around like a bunch of demented mimes, making no sense. (Noah Stuart)

When I presented myself to the written test, the subject of Italian, I didn’t even remember who Dante Alighieri was. My feet were icy, contracting stomach sent back the taste of eggplant that mom ordered to "pull me up", anguish choked me. But then they communicated to us the topic: “the concept of homeland from the Greek police to today”. And it was worse than setting fire to the powders of my childish revolts, of my childish utopia. The cold disappeared, along with the taste of zabaglione, the anguish disappeared. Brandishing the pen, you threw me like a raging wolf on the protocol sheet, and this (kind of) is the summary of what I wrote for eight full columns. (Oriana Fallaci)

Presumably she’s talking about setting a match to gunpowder (it will then explode). Zabaglione is not made of aubergines but eggs, cream, sugar and sherry. This isn’t just too much “show don’t tell”, it is hyperbole – it is even over-writing. (More of this later.) And I’d rather have “I felt sick” than “my stomach contracted”. You don’t want to nauseate your readers. And what have the Greek police to do with the concept of homeland? I think she meant "polis", or city-state. And after all that, "brandishing the pen" is a dangling modifier.

Everything in her relaxed – the tight straining muscles, the tight straining thoughts. A kind of happy weakness came over her. She leaned back as far as she could against the chromium tubes and shut her eyes. Warm drops welled up behind her lashes and rolled down slowly one by one until her face was wet. She let them fall, it didn't matter at all – nothing mattered. (Patricia Wentworth. Her heroine is relaxing on a modernist chromium-plated bed.)

As Flaubert's friends advised: If you want to say it was raining, say "It was raining".

Punshon’s characters are emotionally incontinent: none of them ever seems to be a bit cross, or slightly worried, or mildly surprised, they all go straight for furious rage, abject terror, total shock or utter despair – it's exhausting. (Amazon review. E.R. Punshon started his writing career with successful melodramas.)

The endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while. (Goodreads on C.S. Forrester’s Payment Deferred)

In novels of the earlier 20th century characters constantly turn pale or red. This is described in great detail (her lips had blanched, two bright spots of colour burned in her cheeks, a burning flush spread over her face, he turned a dusky red, the colour in his face darkened even further etc etc). What’s more, other characters notice the flushing, blanching etc. Characters “frown” a lot, too, especially in Mickey Spillane.

Her face was drained of all colour. Beneath the heavy tan his face had blanched. (The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer) People constantly “blanch beneath their tan” in adventure stories from the 1880s on. Women blanch so that their rouge stands out on red patches on their cheeks.

A dusky flush spread over his face – his square jaw became more set – a small muscle twitched at the corner of his nose and a vein throbbed in his forehead. (Margery Allingham, paraphrase. But she's such a good writer that we forgive her.)

Even E.M. ForsterHer husband worked his jaw severely. Little lumps appeared in front of either ear — a symptom that she had not yet learnt to respect.

Nervous people “pull at” their bottom lip. When they’re not doing this they’re biting their lip (gives you a chance to describe their teeth).

Plus “Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead, he mopped his brow”. Influenced by films/TV of the 50s and 60s? They loved spraying a man’s face to show that a) we are in a jungle or b) this person is upset, afraid or guilty.

Agatha Christie mainly avoids this kind of thing which is one of the reasons why I like her. 

More here, and links to the rest.


  1. Perhaps eggplant is a mistranslation. Mum more likely to have ordered something zabaglione-like to 'pull her up'.