The Truth About “Show, Don’t Tell”

We read the first scene of my play during a recent playwriting class. There was some confusion over some details of the characters during the critique. A fictionalization of the ensuing conversation went as follows:

I’m unsure who these characters are. Are you telling a story about a debate club?

A College Republican club. It’s a national advocacy organization for conservatives. I’m often baffled and angry with the state of modern conservatism, so I wanted to write a play to explore my feelings on the subject.

I understand. But we’re over ten pages in. We’re about to come across the play’s inciting incident, and the fact that they’re College Republicans has played no role in your story so far. Your pages also include a lot of exposition, but we’re still in the dark about what’s happening. Your audience won’t be able to hold the pieces together. They’ll become disengaged.

She thinks a moment.

How many students are College Republicans at this school?

Only four. I wanted the characters to attend one of the left-most leaning universities in the country. I feel like it adds juxtaposition and conflict to the story.

That’s a fun idea! You should feed us that information early. That’s a hook.

This was good advice for the piece I’m working on. But how to pull it off organically? I couldn’t bend my characters’ dialogue to feed us this information in a way that didn’t come off stilted or contrived. But it needed to arise organically. A result of the character’s actions, from their needs. But the revelations also had to come early. I became shackled to the cliché: “Show—don’t tell.”

The Kernel of Truth

I hate platitudes. They’re often shorthand solutions to common writing problems. They contain the smallest morsel of truth in their center and a great big outer layer of bile and lies. The most significant damages from clichés come when they’re internalized and substantiate as poor writing practices. This has happened to me a lot along my journey as a playwright.

My intuition was telling me to create a narrator character when I was struggling to include my exposition in my play about the College Republicans. I raged against that impulse. Narrators have a piss-poor reputation in theatre as something inherently “untheatrical.” They are in danger of becoming the very essence of “Tell—don’t show,” which, as we know, makes for a god-awful-no-good trash fire of a play. So says the cliché.

I actually can’t argue with the notion that “telling,” or merely feeding the audience information right-out, is an inferior form of exposition than that of “showing,” or letting the information be picked up on based on character action. Telling is boring. Your audience wants to work for their supper. Telling is lazy. It takes the wind out of the sails of your play. Telling is inelegant. It defeats the purpose of writing for the stage.

And yet, sometimes telling is the necessary linchpin to save your story.

When to Tell

The ideal way to write your play is without any telling whatsoever. You’ve hit the jackpot if you reach the end of your draft and your exposition is clear through showing. I’m often surprised about how much the audience can pick up on without telling the information outright. You’ll often hear about the opening scene of Glengarry Glen Ross as an excellent example of this. The play opens up with Levene asking Williamson for the leads. We have no idea who these characters are or what’s a “lead,” but our questions are answered by the characters pursuing their objective. But sometimes there’s background information required to understand the significance of a moment—background information that would never arise naturally from the circumstances. Background information that you’re unable to withhold until later without sacrificing the intention of your scene. If you’ve gone through a draft or two and can’t unveil vital exposition without telling, maybe it’s time to look at different tools at your disposal.

Giving Yourself Permission

Internalized ideas take time and effort to malleate. Adding a narrator to my play felt wrong, despite knowing how it might add value to the story I wanted to tell. So I think it’s important that I share some things that helped when giving myself permission to write the story I wanted to tell:

Look to the Greats

Some of the greatest writers to walk the Earth have “told” in essential parts of their plays. They know that telling is necessary to move on with the larger story. Just about every one of Shakespeare’s plays begins with a character regurgitating an essay of exposition needed to understand the narrative. Alright, so they’re the most tedious part of his plays. But, they’re generally brief and essential to inform our understanding of the story. Our Town, one of the most performed plays of all time, is built around the character of the Stage Manager, a glorified narrator. So is The Glass Menagerie. So is any number of so-called “memory plays.” If they’re allowed to use telling as a story device, so are you.

Perfection is the Enemy of Good

For the reasons that I’ve already discussed, I concede that feeding the audience information is an inherently flawed way to exhibit exposition. But the degree to which it’s flawed is not equivalent to the rewards it provides. If you’re in a constant state of rewriting your work to avoid telling, you will end up cutting sections of your story that aren’t worth the sacrifice. The danger in the kernel of truth within “show, don’t tell” is that fledgling writers will lean on telling as a crutch. But here’s a helpful lesson for playwrighting and a depressing truth for life: give them a good story and your audience will forgive just about everything.

How to Tell

Shakespeare’s exposition is often insufferable (sacrilege!) because it provides little value with the information we’re fed. Telling the audience exposition effectively involves providing a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Good value can come in the form of intangibilities like humor, theatricality, or interspersing scenes of character action. The Stage Manager in Our Town is an outstanding example because the character contains multiple instances of providing value. The Stage Manager becomes so valuable that the role is often a favorite part of any given production of Our Town despite serving as a device to frame the story. What a shame if Thorton Wilder were to remove them entirely from his script so that Emily Webb and George Gibbs could provide exposition through “organic action.”

I’m following my impulse and adding a narrator to my play. I’m doing this because I know it will add value despite the inorganic nature of dispersing exposition. I’m confident in following this impulse because I’m self-assured in my ability to use it as a tool that best fits my needs and not as a crutch for lazy storytelling. And I’m cognizant of the dangers of “tell, don’t show,” and the trade-off it provides. Perhaps the best lesson to pick up on, in this case, is, “rules are meant to be broken.” Except when they’re not. Like the hardest lessons in writing, the trick is in the when.

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