Short Saturday: Chuck Palahniuk on Show, Don’t Tell

You may have seen this essay from Chuck Palahniuk before, but I just stumbled on it a couple weeks ago. It’s been around for awhile and I can’t seem to (easily) find the original original source, but Palahniuk put his imprimatur on this one when he tweeted it, so I’m pretty comfortable with its provenance.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

Oh, how I agree with him here. You’ll recall how I’ve moaned about memories, in particular.

But the best part of this little essay is, if you pay close attention, Palahniuk’s talking about Show, don’t tell. I wish I could send this essay to the author who—when I pointed out the myriad ways the manuscript was telling, not showing—said, “Strictly speaking, it’s all telling (it’s not storyshowing).” No, my clever darling, my sweet, no. Narrative is narrative, but these interpretive phrases, here, they’re telling.

Palahniuk knows:

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it. … In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Read his examples. They’re fantastic. The man can write. But we knew that.

I like how he points out that the telling statement steals the scene’s thunder. Copy out that paragraph about Brenda, then correct it the way Palahniuk suggests. Much better, no?

And here’s where he gets serious about Show, don’t tell (emphasis here is mine):

Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.

Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s it exactly. I’ve said it before, but maybe now you’ll believe me?

Tweet: Chuck Palahniuk talks about “Show, don’t tell.” Listen up!
Tweet: Your story will always be stronger if you just allow your reader to do the thinking & knowing.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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2 Comments

  1. Just what I needed to hear (AGAIN) Thanks so much for sharing. Someday soon, I’ll learn to recognize when I’m TELLING so I can save my editor from pulling out her hair. (Notice how I didn’t tell the reader that I can save my editor for going crazy?) :)

  2. […] (Chuck Palahniuk agrees with this too.) Bottom line, everybody develops a system, and this is a pretty good one. It might work for you. […]

  3. […] you are tempted to write it. I keep writing about show, don’t tell because it seems to be such a difficult concept for writers who are just learning the craft. Bottom line: allow your readers to do the thinking. […]

  4. […] wanted, imagined … and on and on) are off limits. I love this article from Chuck Palahniuk (which I’ve mentioned before), but you understand he’s trying to make a point, right? (Hint: the point isn’t that you must […]

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Craft and Creativity (An Update*) on 29 May, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    […] (Chuck Palahniuk agrees with this too.) Bottom line, everybody develops a system, and this is a pretty good one. It might work for you. […]

  2. By It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green on 29 May, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    […] you are tempted to write it. I keep writing about show, don’t tell because it seems to be such a difficult concept for writers who are just learning the craft. Bottom line: allow your readers to do the thinking. […]

  3. By Narrative Questions: Meh. on 16 June, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    […] wanted, imagined … and on and on) are off limits. I love this article from Chuck Palahniuk (which I’ve mentioned before), but you understand he’s trying to make a point, right? (Hint: the point isn’t that you must […]

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