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:


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


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!

Jacke News: Sappho, iTunes, and more

Hello, everyone! I hope you’re finishing up your weekend well and heading into the holidays with great gusto. Here’s what to expect this week on the Jacke Blog.

First, we have some news to share! Our new podcast, The History of Literature, has been selected as a New and Noteworthy podcast on iTunes, and we’re currently listed at #14 (in the Literary Podcasts category). Not bad for our first month!

(And look out Grammar Girl… we’re coming for you!)

You can subscribe to the History of Literature on iTunes or check us out on Stitcher. Or just go to whatever podcast directory/resource you use and type in “History of Literature.” Let us know if we don’t come up!

Need a place to start? Our episode on Homer has been very popular.

On Monday we’ll release our episode on Sappho, where we take a look at a remarkable poet and the amazing society that enabled her to exist. We had our sneak previews of Sappho with our look at What Sappho Really Sounded Like and at Sappho, the Ghost Town of Western Washington.

On Wednesday I’ll be back with a special holiday episode of the Restless Mind Show. Our topic is literature and loneliness.

Also coming soon: a look at a Jacke Wilson Thanksgiving and a special tribute to Buster Keaton. A week from Monday we’ll be back with an episode on Greek Tragedy. Fun times around the Jacke Blog!

What am I thankful for? For you, readers! And for you, listeners! Yes, you! This lowly, humble podcaster (ahem, #14 on iTunes, ding ding ding ding ding, come on Jacke, stay lowly, stay humble) is very grateful for all of your views, clicks, listens, comments, emails, voicemails, and other warm wishes. As I mentioned when we started this whole thing, we are in this together. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Onward and upward!