Show don’t tell…..

January 25th, 2012

Although ‘show, don’t tell’ is one of the most basic pieces of writing advice, even the most experienced writers can sometimes fall into the ‘telling’ trap. Yesterday @JoannaCannon tweeted a piece with great insight in an interview with SJ Watson (Before I Go To Sleep) on the Tesco bookblog ( He said that when describing a bathroom, we don’t need to describe the colour of the tiles, the bathmat, the basin etcetera, because all bathrooms have those. We just need to pick out the details that make it different: hairs on the soap or peeling linoleum. The reader will then know what sort of a bathroom it is. Because I also write books on interiors (as Alexandra Campbell), I lean towards over-describing in novels: the wallpaper, the type of carpet, even the actual name of the paint, so I shall take his point.

I read the piece the day after returning from a Living Architecture weekend. Living Architecture ( is a charity set up to give us the experience of living in cutting edge architecture for a week or a weekend. They build outstandingly modern and exciting holiday homes in stunning locations and equip them beautifully, so we can all experience a weekend of living differently. The first time I tried it I was so inspired that I made their Shingle House at Dungeness the final scene for The Empty Nesters, because The Empty Nesters is also about learning to live differently.

Living Architecture’s design certainly stimulated conversation. We loved most things, but found ourselves more than usually critical about anything we didn’t like (for the men, the baths in bedrooms). We decided that this was the point: making you think about why you live as you do. However, we did feel like saying ‘show, don’t tell’ when we found they had also supplied a booklet with conversation topics, along with suggestions as to when to raise them. Advising us to ‘try to avoid banalities’, there were topics for breakfast, lunch, tea, etc. These included ‘is justice more important than forgiveness?’ and ‘what qualities do you most admire and who has them?’ While I think these are genuinely interesting questions, I know very intelligent, articulate, non-banal people who would like to hit me over the head with a frying pan if I asked them at breakfast.

I think Living Architecture already ‘show rather than tell’ with their buildings, and probably don’t need to add to it, but if they do, perhaps a booklet is too didactic. Maybe ask ‘Is Forgiveness more important than Justice?’ on coffee mugs, inscribed into a shower screen or along a garden bench, for example? You might open a cupboard door in search of a coffee pot and find a question asking you about the difference between banality and politeness, for example. I’d also like some interactivity: maybe a whiteboard or guest book where groups could leave a philosophical question for the next group.

It certainly made me think about ‘show, don’t tell’. I looked at what I’d been writing beforehand and had to scrap it all. Have you any advice on ‘show, don’t tell’?

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