Show, Don’t Tell: A Writing Lesson from Stephen King

mr mercedes stephen kingAs I browsed through the library’s fiction section, Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes (2014) jumped from the shelf and into my hands. Well, not literally, but almost. For whatever reason, it grabbed my eye, so I gave it a quick look, then checked it out.

Call me out of touch, but this would be my first read from the horror master. Primarily because this story comprises mystery/suspense, rather than paranormal horror, which doesn’t interest me. (OK, a long time ago I did see the movie Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek.) But I’d recently heard an interview with Mr. King. His down-to-earth demeanor impressed me, so I figured I had put him off for long enough.

Despite my innate cynicism, I found myself enjoying the book. Not just the story, but the writing as well. Especially when I read a scene in which the killer (Brady) has received a message from the retired detective (Hodges) via social media.

After reading it, I thought, Hooray! This exemplifies my “editor’s mantra”: Show, don’t tell.

Rather than writing, “Brady is really pissed off about the detective’s message,” King crafts this scene:

“What are you talking about?” he [Brady] says, his voice somewhere between a whisper and a growl. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

He gets up and strides around in an unsteady circle on legs like stilts, yanking at his hair so hard his eyes water. . . .

He [Hodges] has even had the nerve to put in a smiley-face!

A smiley-face!

Brady kicks his chair, hurting his toes and sending it rolling all the way across the room, where it bangs the wall. Then he turns and runs back to his Number Three computer, hunching over it like a vulture. His first impulse is to reply immediately, to call the fucking cop a liar, an idiot with fat-induced early-onset Alzheimer’s, an anal ranger who sucks his nigger yardboy’s cock. Then some semblance of rationality—fragile and wavering—reasserts itself. He retrieves his chair and goes to the city paper’s website. He doesn’t even have to click on BREAKING NEWS in order to see what Hodges has been raving about; it’s right there on the front page of tomorrow’s paper.

What makes this “showing” rather than “telling”? King’s use of strong monologue and active voice: the use of simple yet descriptive verbs:

  • gets up (or stands up, straightens up)
  • kicks
  • turns and runs
  • retrieves

The poster child for “telling,” for passive voice, manifests itself as “It was . . .” (or “It is . . .”) and variations on that theme. As in “It was a dark and stormy night. . . .”—the opening line of one of the most maligned passages in English literature.

Passive voice, telling: She was angry.

Active voice, showing: She kicked him in the balls.

Showing reflects action, reaction, and response.

Passive voice often leaves the reader with questions, as in this so oft-used phrase that it’s become a cliché : “A sound (or shot) was heard.”

Really? A sound was heard by whom?

Strong writing provides clarity: Otto heard a sound and snapped to attention.

Passive voice depersonalizes writing; it distances the story and characters from the reader.  It’s the voice of academics (especially historians) and journalists, and it’s pedantic and plodding. (And it’s probably what you were taught in school.)

I also find “telling” and passive voice tinged with a degree of arrogance, as if the story teller/academic/journalist is saying, in effect, “Nyah, nyah, niyahnah, I know more than you do.” It comes across as condescending, talking down to the reader, as if the reader is too dim to understand what’s happening.

Readers like stories that have strong, memorable characters, but passive voice dilutes the power of your prose. I cheer up when I read a newspaper with an example of narrative nonfiction (also called creative nonfiction), which applies the techniques of fiction writing to nonfiction.

More than a century ago, Mark Twain wrote: “. . . [U]se plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English—it is the modern way and the best way.” Yet, almost daily I see writers using an anachronistic, 19th century style.

Any time you find yourself writing “it was . . .” (or he/she was . . .) stop and ask yourself: How can I make this better by using active voice and showing, rather than telling? Of course, you can’t weed it out entirely, but keep the use of the verb “to be”—“is,” “was,” “were” and “would”—to a minimum by using simple yet descriptive verb forms and active voice. The use of “to be”—especially “was”—dilutes the effect, takes the punch out of your prose. It gives your writing the “wuzzies.”

Sure, for expedience you can use passive voice when outlining your narrative, when writing your first pass, when you simply want to get your thoughts down on paper (or into an electronic device). But when rewriting and polishing your prose, juice up it and quicken the pace with active voice, especially when conveying emotion, as King has done in the passage cited above. Your readers, without even realizing it, will love you for it, because it engages them, it draws them into the story.

If you show, you don’t need to tell. If she kicks him in the balls, the reader gets that she’s angry. You don’t need to say it.

Then again, what do I know? See: I Know Nothing About Writing



About Polishing Your Prose

Larry M Edwards is an award-winning investigative journalist, author, editor and publishing consultant. He is the author of three books, and has edited dozens of nonfiction and fiction book manuscripts. Under Wigeon Publishing, he has produced six books. As author, "Dare I Call It Murder? A Memoir of Violent Loss" won First Place in the San Diego Book Awards in 2012 (unpublished memoir) and 2014, Best Published Memoir. The book has also been nominated for a number of awards, including: Pulitzer Prize, Benjamin Franklin Award, Washington State Book Award, and One Book, One San Diego. As Editor, "Murder Survivor’s Handbook: Real-Life Stories, Tips & Resources" won the Gold Award in the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Self-Help. For a sample edit and cost estimate, contact Larry: larry [at] larryedwards [dot] com -- -- --
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5 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell: A Writing Lesson from Stephen King

  1. Thanks, Larry. I was taught the old way and I must say, I do prefer the “Show, don’t tell” version. I recently finished reading, (again) “The Robe” by Lloyd C. Douglas. Although it won many awards and made into a movie, it is filled with telling now showing, lots of adjectives and adverbs.

    Although it’s not recommended to start a story describing the weather, I still love it where the story begins with “It was a cold and stormy night”. It sets me in the mood for something “dark and foreboding”.
    Thanks again, Larry
    Pauline Hager

  2. Klaus Schilling says:

    I prefer the version with adverbs and passive voice. None of your diatribes will be able to deter me from telling shamelessly and deliberately instead of showing.

  3. ZombieHippie says:

    Thanks for the example. In response to a couple of the comments, I would say that active and passive voice have their purposes in conveying different energy levels. In King’s writing here, it is powerful and effective to use high energy and “highly” active voice to create the feelings of danger and immediacy, but his writing as a whole certainly does not keep this pace.

    You pointed out a great example, thank you for sharing.

  4. Debbie says:

    I have read The Dead Zone several times, and it is one of my favorite books and movies. But I am confused because it is full of backstory and telling. Full of it! Can you explain the disparity between this great book versus the standard advice not to tell. King’s telling really adds to the book.

    • Story trumps all, and King is a master storyteller. Back story may be, and often is, critical to a story. If you interpreted my comments as implying backstory is bad, then I need to revisit that. That said, the issue I often encounter with inexperienced writers is that they begin a story with a lengthy backstory, written in passive voice, without giving any context to reader, so it reads as if it were a boring history lesson. That’s what I mean by “telling.” (E.g.: It was a dark and stormy night.) Narrative can be written in active voice; i.e., “showing.” E.g.: Arthur snuggled under his blankets as scudding clouds obscured the gibbous moon and the howling wind ripped branches from the oak outside his bedroom window. “Showing” is not restricted to dialogue. I generally recommend that authors dribble in backstory when there is a contextual relevance to the primary story line. I hope this answers your question.

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