This essay was inspired by, and is based on, a discussion with the novelist and teacher Lee Martin at the Vermont College of Fine Art’s 2016 Postgraduate Writers Conference, directed by Ellen Lesser.
Show, don’t tell is one of the great dictums of the writer’s art and the editor’s science, aimed at extruding an end-product that breathes and throbs on the page or screen. At the basic level, though, in the creative process, the vivid pictures that the writer intends to show to the reader are not photographs or etchings, oil paintings or cinema, but abstract images constructed from words, phrasing, figures of speech, and all the other tools on hand to the writer. Consequently, this work at which we mostly pound away, but occasionally soar, will always be an assemblage of written language, and the reason that we call it story-telling. This telling, though, when it comes off well, will be transfigured into showing. How does that happen, and when?
Telling becomes showing when the art of the written form, the on-the-page merging of a writer’s skill, experience, and insight, coaxes the reader out of the confines of sentence structure and the alphabet and into an exploration of the reader’s (not the writer’s) own intimate imagination. Once in there together, the writer helps the reader navigate that imagination, and find or even create the reader’s own bank of images—both tangible and abstract—hoping to ignite in the reader those visions that best “picture” the intent of the writer’s words. This makes the writing burn more brightly in the reader’s mind by “showing” him/her what was in the writer’s mind. If I can paraphrase from his book On Writing, Stephen King calls this a form of mind-reading.
The thing to be clear about here, the real meaning of Show, don’t tell, is that conjuring the initial vision in one’s imagination is only the first step, and you don’t have to be a writer to do that. However, being able to reformulate that abstract image through your eye and hand into a word-based telling that will cross over to the reader and be re-imagined into a showing of the reader’s own conception, on the reader’s own stage, that is the writer’s challenge and skill.
If successful, why does this effort work as a vehicle of enjoyment for both reader and writer? First, it can stir true intimacy in the heart of the reader; he or she feels validated for having been able to sensually and graphically interpret the writer’s creative effort, in much the same way as a music buff feels validated in the grasp of Beethoven’s Fifth, or an art enthusiast is uplifted in the presence of Rodin’s The Kiss. This “bridge to intimacy” may be why Jane Austen’s writing exerts so much power 200 years after it was written, or why The Iliad can do so after three millennia.
Secondly, for the writer, this “image ignition” is a success because it proves that his/her invention works, that this word-machine of the writer’s own labor does indeed carry to another person the set of ideas, figures, etc. created in the writer’s mind and put down on the page. The machine has proven itself to do just what its inventor intended—to bring enjoyment, even ecstasy, to the reader. Seeing the bulb light up over the head of the reader is as joyful for the writer as the one that lit up for Thomas Edison in Menlo Park.
Still, in the final analysis, this machine and its incandescent bulb are built from words. The images appear in the writer’s mind but must converted into words on a page, and only then, if stirring enough in their efficacy, can they rise off the page and be carried into the reader’s mind on his/her thoughts and emotions. There they will be, or can be, reconstituted as pictures in forms shaped by the reader, but reflecting the writer’s design. In this way, the writer shows them to the reader.
Yet what kind of mechanisms can the author use to build that bridge from his/her image factory to the reader’s, methods that will enable the reader to find or create in his or her own gallery the sensory illustration the writer wants to depict?
The cheap answer is “lots of them,” but renowned author, teacher, and novelist Lee Martin (The Bright Forever, Late One Night) espouses one reliable and required source built around three critical components: a) the chronology of events, b) the cause-and-effect chain embedded in the chronology, and c) the consequences of actions (usually the characters’). It’s important to emphasize that the inspiration, imagination, and erudition by which the writer tells these three factors to the reader can entirely determine the efficacy with which he or she shows the story through the images evoked.
Of course, a flawless sequence-in-time, an inarguable series of causal links, and a logically connected set of outcomes, do not guarantee a wonderful—or even bearable—story. Lee Martin wouldn’t say so. However, without them, you almost surely will not have one. (It should—but doesn’t—go without saying that these three “story struts” must be imbued with conflict, the fuel that makes them glow with energy and emotion. The timetable of a train journey, the traction of the locomotive, and the stations along the route are nothing but scribblings on a schedule; put a bomb on the tracks, a criminal gang in the baggage car, and a Pinkerton Agent in pursuit, and you have a story.)
Naturally, with someone like Martin campaigning this analysis (what I hereby christen Martin’s Triad), we all can see its necessity and value. Once the master artisan shows me how to nail on the bootheel, the method’s strength is self-evident. No deep mysteries to it, right? Yet the process is worth a disciplined look because creative development and execution of the Triad can put real magic into a story, memoir, or essay.
How, then, do we use these three struts, along with Show, don’t tell, to fashion the story of our dreams?
Chronology is simply the order-in-time of all the events that will be revealed—what happens when. Yet there are myriad ways to incorporate it in the showing. If the timeframe is brief, it can be shown on Grand Central’s clock-face, frogs croaking at sunset, an oblivious jogger, or even the flight of a passing bird. If the period to be covered is long, the writer’s images can be of passing seasons, aging of characters, career landmarks, and so on. Aromas from an off-stage kitchen, the climax of a horse race, and a lover waking up—or failing to—are all candidates for story events tied to, and marking, the passage of time.
The chain of cause-and-effect puts weight into the showing with details of each event’s timing, breadth, and outcomes. This second part of Martin’s Triad offers infinite scope and scale for the creative mind to produce and color images for the reader. For each event in your story, how many possible causes can you invent before settling on the one most trenchant and visual? What were the touches, sounds, and smells that led to the love affair? How poignantly can you draw the emotional trauma that was the motive for the murder? What sequence of distracted slips-and-falls did the bystanders see that caused our klutz to fall off the streetcar while touring Prague with his fellow stamp-collectors? The richness of possibilities for depicting causes in exacting detail—for showing them—is unlimited.
Outcomes, or consequences, derive from the intersection of chronology and causes, intended and unintended; they are the penalties or rewards, failures or triumphs, big or small, final or intermediate, that answer the question, “What happened?” Without that answer, there is no story. Without Martin’s formula of an orderly chronology plus a logical chain of causation, the consequences are neither inevitable nor believable. More relevant to this discussion, the consequences must be shown. Without a grand vision or all-encompassing landscape or exquisite miniature that represents the emotional and sensual impact of the consequences, the felt outcome in the reader’s mind, the story will never convey the satisfaction that both reader and writer seek.
In review, and in a seeming contradiction, there is no need to use Martin’s Triad in a logical sequence when telling of the tale (though we also must not violate them in the narrative’s final assembly). The story may open with the chronology’s last act, rather than the first. As it moves, the narrative may reveal characters’ actions that, initially, have no apparent ties to cause-and-effect. A consequence may impose itself from an origin nowhere in sight, or in a way that seems illogically rendered. However, good writing, rewarding to the writer as well as the reader, will execute this apparent jumbling in a way that doesn’t confuse or humble the reader, stint on the action, or, ultimately, violate the chronology, cause-and-effect, and inevitability of the (often unexpected) consequences. (To use the bridge metaphor yet again here, I sometimes imagine my reader as a blind man on a bridge, and my job is to show him in words how to get across that bridge without me holding his hand.)
Wonderful writing can cascade from the imaginative disassembly-reassembly of these three components, flowing into a narrative that satisfies the basics of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Further, if you want to introduce the “Big Five” early (main characters, MCs’ goals and motivations, your “hook,” plot expectations, and launching the story), you may need to defer until later the orderly chronology that will eventually complete the story, and much of the causality tied to that opening. In addition, we may show consequences at the outset, but give evidence for their cause much later. However, using which ever narrative order you choose, the reassembly as you approach the conclusion must be faithful to Martin’s Triad. The underlying logic and causes must remain intact and, in fact, be bolstered, even if in ways only gradually revealed. In the end, the three elements must be resolved and kept whole, for they are the mechanics of the showing.