Buster Keaton and The Art of Showing (Not Telling)

Every aspiring creative writer hears it at some point:. It’s one of those great phrases that sound cryptic and meaningful and take a while to puzzle out.

Yes, yes, young grasshopper, I see you’ve written some words on the page here, and I see you’re trying to do something like write fiction, a craft I myself have mastered over many difficult years. Ah, well, you are cute, young grasshopper, I admire your young and precious energy, but you have so much to learn. So let me speak in my greatest guru voice and give you a secret that may take you years to unpack, you who thought you knew so much just from reading fiction. And here’s the advice, young grasshopper. “Show, don’t tell.”

Or as it’s usually phrased, in creative writing guidebooks:

SHOW DON’T TELL

And as it’s usually heard by the aspiring author:

SHOW DON’T TELL YOU IDIOT

I have my issues with this phrase, as everyone who cares about writing fiction should.

Let’s put it this way: used well, it’s a helpful little reminder of something important. When it’s misunderstood, it can produce barbarisms.

And…it’s probably been misunderstood as often as it’s been used well.

Here’s what it means: as you’re steaming along with your narrative, and a character turns up, you can say something like “X was very clever” and leave it at that, but a) that’s not much fun for the reader and b) might not be very persuasive. Let’s see some cleverness! Show us the clever!

That doesn’t mean you can never say “X was very clever.” That very well might be the best way to introduce that character. Or there may be times when your narrator is fully capable of telling rather than showing. Telling can often be the best way to get something across – the fastest or most efficient. You might be setting up some nice narrative irony with the telling. Maybe you are going to save the showing for something else.

Go find Jane Austen. Leo Tolstoy. Herman Melville. There will be plenty of telling in there, along with all the good showing.

Here’s Jacke’s variation:

Show when it makes sense to show, tell when it makes sense to tell. But make sure you’re thinking about the reader’s experience.

(Oh, and don’t name your character X. Unless that’s the best name for your character. See how this works?)

Now, everything I just said is really just a way of introducing a video I should have just shown. Buster Keaton and the art of the sight gag, a highly enjoyable video by the great Tony Zhou. Nota bene the part where Keaton discusses visual jokes vs. jokes conveyed through title cards. But really, just sit back and enjoy. We don’t spend enough time admiring artists like this one, but we’re the better for it when we do.

Onward and upward!

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8 thoughts on “Buster Keaton and The Art of Showing (Not Telling)

    1. Great to hear! I went through a mild one a few years ago but it might be time for another. I did go through a big Jackie Chan phase last year – it’s easy to see why Buster Keaton was his hero.

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