How magicians helped me understand Show, don’t tell
I wanted to be Paul Daniels. He was a telly magician. By that I mean two things:
- he appeared on the telly,
- his magic involved storytelling.
Magic on the telly shouldn’t work. With all the possibilities of cheating available to a magician working on TV we have to REALLY trust the magician.
How did Paul Daniels do that?
Magic is the most philosophical performing art, because — like philosophy — it replaces the illusion of knowledge with the knowledge of illusion.
There are magicians that are all about the show. They work without talking, usually with background music, and make things appear and disappear out of thin air.
I didn’t want to be that kind of magician.
Their illusions have to be big. They have to be very showy because the audience has to get the trick without any telling. So making things appear and disappear is about all they can do, because it is easy to understand.
Magicians will always tell you the trick is the most important thing, but I’m more interested in telling a story.
When you add storytelling into the mix, then suddenly you can perform so many more tricks. Your story works to tell the audience the version of the truth that you want them to believe.
At some point, you need to hide the move that allows the trick to work — the misdirection.
There is the story that you have told the audience, and the real story of how you performed the trick.
The trick depends as much on the magician’s storytelling ability as on their manual dexterity.
How to do magic
When I was hungry to become a magician, I spent a lot of time hunting in our city library. Fortunately it had a large recreation section, and part of that included professional books on magic.
I devoured them.
One that I particularly liked had the following genius format:
- Describe the trick as seen from the audience’s point of view
- Describe the secret of the trick
When I read the first part, I was totally incredulous that such a trick could ever be performed. The mystery was set up so well that the only way I could see it being successful was through TV trickery.
But then I would read the second part, and the secret would be revealed, and suddenly the miraculous seemed common place.
Show, don’t tell
The common writing advice is to show, don’t tell.
It is good advice if you are one of those writers who are prone to describe everything upfront. If you tell the reader everything about what is happening (this seems to be a particular danger for fantasy and science fiction writers).
You don’t want to tell the secret of the trick before the reader is desperate to know it.
Tell, don’t show
Rules such as “Write what you know,” and “Show, don’t tell,” while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.
On the other hand, the beauty of telling a story through a novel over the same story on television is that not everything has to be shown.
On television you have to show everything, unless you resort to measures such as
- a voiceover to narrate the bit you need to tell,
- bad dialogue that tells the viewer things the characters already know.
Magician as storyteller
The magician is a visible narrator on television. They get to tell you the story they want you to believe.
That is how they make the impossible happen.
Show don’t tell, but don’t show everything.
Writing a novel
In a novel you can, and should, tell the reader the version of events that you, the writer, want them to experience.
Telling happens, for example, when you:
- set the scene — tell them where you are in time and space
- narrate the characters’ thoughts and feelings — the reader needs help to understand the meaning of the events to the characters
- summarise and move the narrative on quickly
Most people say, “Show, don’t tell,” but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they’re like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed-up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do.
Do you prefer a showy or a telly magician?
I prefer a telly magician.
I want to be told the story, not just shown some scenes.
I want to experience the magic and be left begging to know the truth, the secret, behind it.
Which kind of writer are you?