Six years ago, the ABC television show Lost aired its final episode. Regardless of whether or not you liked the show, it did one thing better than almost any other program I’ve ever watched. It demonstrated the true difference between showing and telling.
Over the years, how many people have told you to show instead of tell in your writing? Most likely more than you can count, and every single time you probably sit there, thoughtfully stroking your chin, nodding knowingly in solemn agreement, while internally you’re saying to yourself, I thought it was tell, don’t show… isn’t that what he said last time? What’s the difference, anyhow? Not like I’ll ask out loud, because then I’ll have to pry this knowing, solemn expression off my face. Anyway, when I’m writing, aren’t I doing nothing but telling? I mean, it’s not like I’m making a film or a graphic novel…and aren’t rules made to be broken? What is this, anyway, communist China, for crying out loud? Mmmm, Chinese food sounds really good right now…
I’ve said it myself many, many times. Show, don’t tell. I’ve probably said, “Tell, don’t show” a couple of times too. But since you’re sitting there, all alone in your cube reading this, I’m going to show you how Lost cleared it up for me once and for all. Nobody ever has to know that you weren’t clear on it either. I won’t tell a soul. Swear.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of Lost, one of the cornerstones throughout the show’s first five seasons on air was the relationship between Kate (Evangeline Lilly) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway). These two spent five years of the show flirting, fighting, joking, having sex in a cage (that was just once, and it’s not as weird as it sounds…okay, it is, but that’s beside the point I’m trying to make), so we were shown this relationship. We lived it, and many viewers (females in particular) rooted for this union to happen. But at the beginning of season six, this story line went kaflooey. The castaways were thrown back to 1974, where Juliet (Elizabeth Mitchell) and Sawyer are stuck together without the other survivors.
And then this caption appeared on screen:
Three Years Later.
Huh? Oh, no, you di’n’t!
Then a scene unfolded in which we found out that for the last three years, Sawyer and Juliet have been in a relationship, that in fact they looooove each other. They say so in that scene.
Wait a minute. Sawyer and Juliet? For five years we watched a relationship build between Sawyer and Kate, during which time the L word was never uttered, and now we’re TOLD it’s three years later and Sawyer and Juliet love each other?
Oh, but wait: it gets better. Later on in this episode, Sawyer has a conversation with a brand-new character (the bane of the regular Lost viewer, the endless parade of new characters) named Horace, that tells us that Sawyer is “over” Kate. That he doesn’t even remember what she looks like.
For weeks after the episode aired I couldn’t figure out why this whole story arc felt false to me, why it nagged at the edges of my subconscious, and then it hit me. It was all this telling instead of showing. We weren’t invested in the relationship between Sawyer and Juliet because we didn’t get to watch it develop. Instead we were told, “No, really. Take our word for it. They totally love each other. A lot of stuff has happened between them. Just trust us. It’s been three years.”
Clearly, the writers wanted to throw in a plot twist to ratchet up the tension between Kate and Sawyer when Kate inevitably returned to the island. The problem is that it was phony, contrived tension. It was like telling a kid the bogeyman is going to get him if he doesn’t behave, but the kid misbehaves anyway, because he’s never seen the bogeyman. He knows the bogeyman isn’t real. Just like the relationship between Juliet and Sawyer. When writers tell rather than show, they make the reader feel cheated, uninvolved, and uninvested in what’s going on.
So from all of us who sat through endless fiction workshops being hammered with show, don’t tell, to the writers of Lost: Thank you.
LS Hawker grew up in suburban Denver, indulging her worrisome obsession with true-crime books, and writing stories about anthropomorphic fruit and juvenile delinquents. She wrote her first novel at 14.
Armed with a B.S. in journalism from the University of Kansas, she had a radio show called “People Are So Stupid,” edited a trade magazine, and worked as a traveling Kmart portrait photographer, but never lost her passion for fiction writing.
She’s got a hilarious, supportive husband, two brilliant daughters, and a massive music collection. She lives in Colorado but considers Kansas her spiritual homeland.