In which not much is left to the imagination

Here’s a sign I snapped during my post-Christmas holiday in Yorkshire. Can you spot what’s wrong with it?

It is a classic example of a violation of a rule that fiction writers refer to as “Show, Not Tell”. What it means is this: if you spell things out unnecessarily to your audience (whether this be a reader, or a person in search of a pint), he will become frustrated in your lack of trust in his intellect or imagination. Whenever I see a pub blackboard extolling the virtues of how old, or charming, or historic it is, I’m very much disinclined to go inside and form my own opinion. In short, any pub that needs to trumpet its greatness probably has to do so for a reason: because its claims are grounded on wishful thinking. The best pubs become known as such through good experiences spread via word of mouth, not by chirpy phrases on a sign.

In fiction, the “Show, Not Tell” rule is notoriously slippery. The whole modus operandi of fiction, you might think, is to paint a picture for the reader and in doing so, lure him into your world. This is true, of course. But if you do so in an obtrusive, didactic way, you’ll only annoy your readers – and risk shattering that all-important suspension of disbelief, a spell that all storytellers needs to maintain.

One of my favorite authors is Neal Stephenson, and I waited three months to read his latest, Reamde, after ordering it off Amazon. Not only did I want unbroken time to enjoy the tale, but its 1.3 kilo bulk was too heavy to schlep around on the Underground during my daily commute, and I feared drowning in the bathtub under its sheer 1044-paged gravitas. So I took it with me to the North York moors just after Boxing Day and read it in several hour stretches between long rambles on the moors, and games of whist with glasses of port near the open fire in the pub under our room.

The Horseshoe Inn, Levisham, Yorks

For the most part, I did lose myself in the plot – it’s a great novel. There was just one niggling problem with the prose: a tendency to over-explain, including a few instances of the above-mentioned violation. Even established writers get this wrong on occasion. Can you spot it here?

He set his bag down on one of the leather-upholstered seats, carefully, suggesting that it contained something valuable and delicate, such as a laptop.

Everything we need to know about the bag’s contents is adequately imparted by the use of the adverb “carefully”. (I say “adequately”, because adverbs are a fairly lazy way of “showing”.) The next clause about being valuable and delicate is overkill, and the third, about the laptop, is bludgeoning the poor reader over the head. We are being told how to interpret what we’re seeing, instead of being allowed to witness it all without explanatory footnotes.

“Show, Not Tell” violations not only insult the reader’s intelligence, but they leave nothing to the imagination. If this particular character – a hulking great bulk of a gangster hacker – was setting down a bag with care, I as the reader would instantly start wondering – what’s in there? Why is he worried about it? Is it a piece of equipment, a weapon? A laptop? Some other delicate item that we can only guess it? The suspense would ramp up in direct proportion to how much time I devoted to wondering. Instead, the author has basically fed it to us on a platter.

Such clumsy constructions are easy for any writer to make, which is where talented editors come in. When I’m working on a novel, the early drafts tend to emerge over-explained, with too many adjectives and adverbs. Revision, for me, is the process of shaving away words until only a glimmer of the sentence’s core essence remains. And after this, external readers tend to point out where I still haven’t gone far enough.

Being in Yorkshire showed me in other ways how difficult the writer’s lot truly is. I tried to describe the following scene, low tide at Whitby, in several emails to friends, and failed completely. So instead of a thousand words, I’ll close with this picture:

Happy new year, all!

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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16 Responses to In which not much is left to the imagination

  1. Tideliar says:

    Excellent post!

  2. ricardipus says:

    That’s a rather lovely photo.

    Thanks for the insight into the writing process, from one who is almost constantly guilty of using far, far, far, far (etc.) too many words.

    Perhaps a useful exercise for aspiring authors would be to edit, say, a full Science paper down to, for the sake of argument and not because I ever had to do this, oh no no no, a Nature Genetics brief report?

    No bitterness there, really.

    Your sentence “In short, any pub that needs to trumpet its greatness probably has to do so for a reason: because its claims are grounded on wishful thinking.” reminds me of something my current boss occasionally says – that if someone describes their organization as “world class”, it probably isn’t. Same idea, I guess.

    Last disjointed thought – Happy New Year!

  3. I know the Horseshoe Inn in Levisham very well indeed – all through my childhood, one of my family’s favourite Sunday activities was to hike there through the Hole of Horcum, have lunch, then hike back around the top of the hole, stopping for tea in Pickering on the way home! In fact, my parents were there just a few days ago and might even have been in the bar at the same time as you! Whitby is another firm favourite – did you check out the Abbey’s graveyard? One of my favourite spots (seriously).

  4. rpg says:

    Ooh. I have a photo of the graveyard—time for my own blog post.

    When were your folks there? I hope Rosie didn’t bark at them. She’s very friendly really.

  5. What a coincidence, Cath! I stumbled over the pub about five years ago. Apparently it changed hands three years ago, but I couldn’t detect much difference – the meals were still amazing.

  6. Frank says:

    Lovely photo, Jenny (the one at the end I mean).

    I shall try to remember the “Show, not tell” rule. I wonder though whether that rule applies in advertising copy, where subtlety is not seen as a desirable quality? If you are trying to be pithy and attention-grabbing it is hard to avoid an element of tub-thumping. OTOH, I know I automatically filter out most claims to worthiness when reading adverts or boards like the one you show.

  7. I can only assume that some people are attracted by signs like that pub’s one. Foreign tourists, possibly, who are on high alert for anything “traditional”. Or perhaps the sorts of people who were queuing up to enter the Whitby “Dracula Experience” (complete with canned Dracula banter issuing forth from the black-plastic moulded entrance).

  8. John the Plumber says:

    I have one ‘scientific’ book I have been writing for the last forty years. Who knows – you might get to read it one day – but you might guess that I am niether a scientist nor a writer – I find writing a tortuous business. Thankyou then for the advice in your post. Show not tell – a puzzle at the start – a clear means to put direction into how I must think to write by its end. – Forgive me however if I berate you a little – but only to wrest further advice.

    – “I can only assume that some people are attracted by signs like that pub’s one.” –

    hat’s got to be wrong somewhere. – I know because that’s how I write. – Help me out. – How would I correct this if I had written it?.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    It was the 27th, I think, or maybe the 28th. Here’s a photo of them!

  10. Hey, John the Plumber – yeah, that’s a clunky sentence. I don’t tend to worry about perfect writing when I’m dashing off a comment on my iPhone. 😉 Something more refined would have been:
    “I can only assume that some people are attracted by signs such as the one I saw in that pub.”

    Long live editorial criticism, and good luck with your book! I’m dying to know what it’s about.

    Cath, we were there both those evenings. The photo’s not ringing a bell, but you should ask them if they saw a group of four, two 40-somethings and two 60-somethings plus a lovely yellow lab who looks like the Andrex puppy only about a year older.

  11. Stephen says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you could have shaved off one more word from your sentence about shaving words — either ‘core’ or ‘essence’. But what do I know?

    Happy new year!

  12. Excellent – keep the pruning suggestions coming. Let’s see if we can get all the way down to:

    “In which.”

    The end.

  13. John the Plumber says:

    Thanks Jennifer

    Shaving words – my book solves ‘the species problem’. That’s why its taken a while.

    Is blunt a good shaving word – I’m not sure cos I’ve got a beard?

  14. John the Plumber says:


  15. Heather says:

    This is probably the first time in which someone has showed what “show, don’t tell” means in a way that actually registered with me. As opposed to telling. Thank you. I have a real propensity to loghorrea and this post may well become a reference for me.

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Reamde; I was debating getting it, but received the chunky 11.22.63 over Christmas, and a couple of other goodies, so Stephenson will wait for a while yet.

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