Everyone has heard the old adage that “actions speak louder than words” but how many of us have actually taken the time to dig into the meaning of that phrase? It’s something that it just feels like it’s right. Well, it is. Just looking at the literal meaning of the phrase you can imagine plenty of examples where it is literally true.
Take the classic bully event in school – the theft of lunch money. In this scenario, the bully, while beating up the kid who doesn’t hand over the lunch money, claims “I don’t really want to hurt you, but you just don’t seem to learn any other way”. We can all see the lie in that statement. If the bully really didn’t want to hurt the other kid, he wouldn’t do it. We all know that bullies get some sort of reward out of hurting others. That’s how the whole bully dynamic works. Look a little closer and we don’t need to know anything about the bully dynamic. Some guy bops you in the nose and says “I didn’t mean to hurt you” what are you going to believe? If it happens more than once does that make a difference? Yea it does. The first time I can see it being an accident and give the guy the benefit of the doubt. But the second time, sorry I just can’t make myself believe that he didn’t mean it. There you have it: actions trump words.
OK, now that we’ve covered the obvious, let’s get on with the more subtle meanings of this phrase.
In writing terms we change this phrase to “show don’t tell”. This phrase isn’t as obvious as “actions speak louder than words” in the real world. The idea is the pretty much the same. Words can lie, actions not so much (I can hear all the actors out there getting ready to argue with me – yea I know. We’ll cover that bit later). It’s one thing for a character to say that they are excited by their favorite music group coming to town and another for them to squee until they can’t breathe while pointing at the poster.
This axiom is even more powerful, and easier to see, when the character is lying. “Oh, them, I don’t really care.” He said. He stared at the poster, memorizing every detail. So would you believe that he really doesn’t care? Probably not. This is how unreliable narrators are created and maintained. If you give them just enough lies that are obvious, everything else they say will be suspect. And if you noticed, the truth came out in his actions. When he stared at the poster. If you don’t care you aren’t going to stare at the poster – you’re going to look away. Just like the bully above, the words lied but the actions proved the lie.
This is something that we learn as children on the play ground. It doesn’t take too many lies before kids stop believing the liar. It will take more than most kids have to regain the trust of their playmates. It is reinforced often when you are betrayed in one way or another by the classmates who don’t do their part of the project or the co-workers who promise one thing and deliver another or the lovers who swear they only have eyes for you until you catch them with your best friend. The actions vs words imbalance is so deeply ingrained that you will never be able to over come it.
Why would you want to?
This is a powerful tool for you the writer. You don’t have to limit your characters or narrators to telling the truth, provided you can show the truth. If not the truth than at least the signs of hidden realities. We all know what a liar looks like – well at least the liars we’ve met. We know that shiftiness that hints that there is something not quite right here. The late nights at the office, the funny phone calls that don’t make any sense, the answers that don’t quite answer the question. Even if we’ve never had that experience ourselves, we’ve seen it in action.
There are of course ways to make actions lie. Just ask any actor. Of course acting is a skill that many of us don’t possess. Even among the professional actors there are greater and lesser skilled actors. There are those who can make you believe just about anything and others who consistently get cast in just one kind of roll – because that’s close enough to who they are that they can pull it off consistently. Acting requires that you do actions that are lies in themselves while speaking words that are not your own. Skilled liars are able to make their actions match their lies as well. This is what makes them so dangerous. Because we are so bound to the idea that actions trump words, when the actions lie we are doomed. Even if the words tell the truth, we will still believe the actions. Fortunately it is much easier to lie in our words and tell the truth with our actions than the other way around.
When you are writing, the important thing is to remember the primacy of actions. That is why we tell you to “show not tell”. Show the truth about your world, your characters, your situations in the actions. Let the characters lie to each other all they want, even let them lie to the reader. If you’ve made the actions clear, your audience will see the truth.