Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Show versus Tell in a Memoir’s Internal Voice

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn about the power and importance of memoirs and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

In her memoir Freeways to Flipflops, Sonia Marsh is a masterful fretter. She worries. She feels overwhelmed and helpless. She second-guesses herself. Maybe I shouldn’t have been a stay-at-home mom all these years. Was my move to Belize really best for all my children? Her thoughts feel incredibly honest and revealing, a window into her many misgivings.

By sharing her thoughts, Sonia Marsh allows us to see into her soul. She also provides an intriguing example for writers who are trying to figure out how much of their thought process they ought to include. When I started to write my own memoir, I assumed I knew the answer to this question.

I was taught that to write a story, you must “show don’t tell,” a piece of advice that was repeated so often it sounded like a mantra. In order to draw readers into the world of the story, the writer is supposed to create scenes complete with sensory impressions of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Since we don’t smell or see thoughts, and hear them only silently, I assumed I wasn’t permitted to reveal them.

However, years of attempting to follow this rule produced disappointing results. My critique partners complained that my story seemed remote and impersonal. I wasn’t revealing enough about my own thoughts and feelings. Finally I got the message.

In a workshop hosted by First Person Arts in Philadelphia, my fellow critiquers complained once again that something was missing from my scenes. Teacher Lise Funderberg, author of Pig Candy explained it to me this way. “If you don’t tell your readers why the scene is important to you, they won’t know why it should be important to them.” I went home and revised the passage. When I read it aloud at the next session, the eight people around the table stood and applauded.

Based on this new insight into my own memoir writing voice, I began to pay attention to the presence of thoughts in memoirs I love to read. I discovered that I often enjoy “hearing” what is going on inside the authors’ minds. However, I was not sure if they were  telling me their thoughts or showing me. After years of attempting follow the rule I have come to the conclusion that it is far more ambiguous than it first appears.

For example, in the memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, the author teaches her students about the nuances of Vladimir Nabakov’s literature. Is she showing herself teaching, or is she telling us the literary theory? In my opinion, she is doing both at the same time. This happens a lot in real life. We tell each other all kinds of things. We even talk to ourselves.

When Frank McCourt walks alone around the streets of New York in his memoir ‘Tis, his observations of the city often amount to him telling himself what he sees.  He demonstrates the paradox of the “show don’t tell” rule by both violating and obeying it within the same thought-filled passages.

One of my most striking examples of “telling as a form of showing” comes from the memoir In Spite of Everything by Susan Gregory Thomas about a young woman attempting to grow up. Susan blamed her disrupted childhood on the narcissistic excesses of her parents. They were children of the 60s, swept up in the notion that the world would be a better place if they acted as selfishly as possible. Susan Gregory Thomas became fascinated by the problem that the boomers thought of themselves as happy-go-lucky kids, but from her vulnerable position all she saw was a generation of really, really bad parents. Her view of the generations made her a spokesperson for Gen-X, a role she took seriously. Since she believed so deeply in the importance of these generational influences, it naturally became an important part of her memoir.

Susan Gregory Thomas’ telling is different from Sonia Marsh’s. One author tells about her analytical expertise and ideas, and the other about her own interior dilemmas. However, they share one thing in common. Their thoughts about the world have contributed to excellent stories, demonstrating the appropriateness of thoughts in the memoir genre.

Both examples reveal the blurred distinction between showing and telling. By telling her thoughts, (or is it showing them?) each author let us participate in her inner process. Because this rule is so important in understanding the art of storytelling, in my next post I will explore the difference between memoir and fiction writing and show how it influences the show-versus-tell decision.

Examine your own manuscript for places that seem flat, and that might benefit from more insight into what was going on inside your own mind. Consider adding emotional depth and texture to the passage by sharing your own thoughts. After all, the first-person point of view lets us see the world through your eyes. Why not add the inner sense of hearing, and let us hear your thoughts as well? (Don’t add thoughts of the “narrator,” meaning the person you are today. As much as possible, limit your thoughts to the main “character” in the book, meaning the person you were during the scene.)

Footnote: For another article about the importance of ideas in memoirs, see my post about Colored People by Henry Louis Gates learned some things about life: His relationship to girls changed in this scene:

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)
Lise Funderburg’s Home Page Author of Pig Candy
First Person Arts Home Page
My Article About Reading Lolita in Tehran
Susan Gregory Thomas Author of In Spite of Everything

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.