“Show not tell” is something writers hear a lot about. I’ve attended three meetings of my writers’ group now, and it’s the starting point for lots of the critique. If you’re stuck for an observation, there’s almost bound to be a bit of exposition somewhere you can pick on as an area for improvement. Not that anyone does that kind of thing, of course. Just saying they could.
The thing is, I’ve started to wonder whether telling not showing isn’t learned behaviour; whether, outside the strange little world we inhabit when writing, we spend most of our interactions with other people showing not telling. It’s a sort of courtesy. Take today, for example…
I’d been dozing for a while this morning, enjoying the weight of one of my cats snuggled up against my leg, wondering how long it would take the other one to be brave enough to challenge her sister for her own bit of bed space, when I was shocked into full consciousness by the far-too-loud ringing of the phone in the bedroom. Note to self: adjust the volume.
Since dad’s stroke, a ringing phone for me brings with it a sense of mild panic. I know the probability is that it’s nothing life-changing, but there’s still always that vague feeling of foreboding. The days when I would occasionally just let it ring if it was inconvenient to answer have long gone, so this morning’s call catapulted me from bed like a cat on a hotplate. (My own cat, meanwhile, merely raised her head with an expression of faint surprise.)
It was the chap from ADT, telling me he was on his way to test our home alarm, and he’d be there in about half an hour. Thank goodness for the call, because I’d completely forgotten about it. Just enough time to get dressed, make the bed (as tidily as possible, given that madam was showing no inclination to move) and do a cursory tidy-up. And then he arrived.
Meeting someone new always triggers a range of instant assessments, particularly when that someone is about to enter your home. This chap had an ordinary-enough face; blonde hair that was a bit curly and longer than most men’s, but not long enough to qualify for 80s rock band status; he was tall, but not imposing; and he was wearing a blue boiler suit with ADT on the breast pocket. His greeting was pleasant enough, but not the super-friendly chirpiness of men who make their living doing things inside other people’s homes (perhaps that’s a tool to reassure women home alone that they’re not rapists or murderers or intent on stealing the family silver? What a world we live in!).
A nice guy, I thought, perhaps finding Monday morning a bit of a challenge.
Once inside he started fiddling about with the key pad for the alarm. That’s when I noticed his bright pink nail polish. And shortly after that, I remembered my manners and offered him a cup of tea.
He accepted with a look of real gratitude that made me think the first few hours of the working week were, indeed, proving something of a trial. The phone rang again whilst the kettle was boiling: my sister, calling to give me an instant read-out of the job interview she’d had that morning. Yes, I know: a job interview at 9 a.m. on a Monday! What kind of sadists are these people?
It turned out that the partner of ADT man had also had a job interview recently. I wanted to ask more. Then I noticed the smudginess of last night’s eyeliner – on ADT chap, not me. I rewound the conversation – had he mentioned whether his partner was a man or a woman? I couldn’t remember. I tried a different formulation: what was the interview for?
So he told me, and he told me about his partner (who was indeed a “he” – I quietly congratulated myself), and how he’d had a heavy night at the pub because his mates had entered him into a talent contest, and he’d got great feedback from the judges, and he was 40 years old, and although he’d been singing and playing guitar for almost his whole life it had only ever been in front of his friends, and it was the first time he’d worked up the courage to do anything like that, and the judges had told him, “You’re far better than you think you are.”
And I was so, so pleased for him, even though I’d only just met him. Because it was obvious how much it meant to him. Because he was starting to believe that maybe the thing he loved doing most was something he might actually be good at. That perhaps there was another, really exciting, branch to his path through life opening up in front of him. Because right at the moment that’s something I’m starting to dare to feel too.
Of course, he didn’t say any of that stuff about what it really meant for him. Not like that, anyway. And I didn’t say any of that stuff about how pleased I was for him. Not like that, anyway.
But I’m pretty sure we both showed it.
Maybe the thing about showing not telling is to remember how we reach those hundreds of conclusions each day about the people around us, the situations we experience. Maybe we just need to try to be a bit more conscious of those little clues we read. And perhaps it’s those clues we set before our readers, and leave them to draw their own conclusions.
Because doing anything else just isn’t polite.