A Long Look At “Show, Don’t Tell”

You hear that a lot, as a writer: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

It is, by itself, not entirely meaningful. Taken literally: films show, while novels tell. It’s doubly complicated by the word, “Storytelling.” As in, “To tell a story.” As in, “Wait, wasn’t I supposed to show instead of tell?”

As with all the succinct little amuse-bouches of writing advice, this particular nugget contains a modicum of wisdom if you can peel back the skin-flaps and chip away bone to find the heart of the thing underneath.

It’s like this:

We tell stories. But the advice asks us to look at how we tell those stories.

There exists a mode of telling stories which is strongly declarative: less visual, more intellectual and instructive, and with it comes the sense of a parent instructing a child. This mode relies more on telling.

There exists a mode of telling stories which asks more of the audience. It is more visual, more intuitive, and some might (falsely) claim it’s more “cinematic.” This mode relies more on showing.

Telling is explanation. It is definition. It is text. It says, This is that.

Showing is revelation and illustration. It is subtext. It asks, Is this that?

Telling walks ahead of you. It pulls you along.

Showing is the shadow behind. It urges you forward.

Telling invokes. Showing evokes.

Now, both modes have value in storytelling.

Sometimes you want to drop the audience into the space with no easy answers and have them feel around for themselves. Other times you need to take a moment, sit their ass in a chair, and give them a right-good talking-to. You need to tell them what’s up. You need them — if they’re going to proceed any further — to understand the sticky diplomatic relations between the jellyfish-like citizens of the Blumzorp Conglomerate and the constantly-micturating Night Goblins of the Moons of Hong.

Here, now, I will make some bold and debatable statements.

Generally, showing is a stronger mode of writing than straight-up telling.

The impact is more keenly felt. Imagine, if you will, a phone call where someone tells you, “Your mother is dead.” It’s a big gut-punch, that phone call. It’ll leave you reeling. Ah, but — now imagine a situation where you’re shown that rather than told it. Imagine you’re there when she dies. You’re there to feel the last flutter of a pulse, to share last words, to watch the life pass from her eyes as everything just… slumps.

The latter is more impactful, at least in my mind. The latter is you in that moment, witnessing it first-hand as a primary source. The audience wants to feel like a primary source — it gives them intimacy with the tale told and does not purport to keep them at arm’s length. Further, showing delivers a level of mystery, whereas telling often (though not always) obviates that mystery.

Another example, this one simpler but no less important:

Saying “John is angry” (telling) versus offering signs of John’s rage and irritation (showing).

You might reveal this through body language, through words chosen, through his actions. You’re letting the audience come to the conclusion regarding John’s vein-popping rage rather than straight up telling them he’s one pissed-off little monkey. Nothing wrong with letting the audience do some work.

Further, when we show things to the reader, we are building elements (character, setting, description) with details rather than letting a single statement (“John likes cake”) be the standard-bearer for the scene. Though therein lies a danger, too — just as you can tell too little, you can show too much.

When is telling more appropriate? Again, if you have information that absolutely must be conveyed, then telling is the way to go. It’s short and dirty and sometimes? It works. Further, you shouldn’t be afraid to have characters (through dialogue or, at times, through first-person POV) “tell” things. Explanation through a character’s voice and perspective still can carry with it the earmarks of showing — because just as it’s true that you as the author have choices in how you share information, so too do all the characters in your story. Characters speaking in their own voice are, in a way, showing.

And that’s maybe a lesson for the author, too — your voice in all this matters, and a strong and artful voice can make telling seem like showing even when it’s not.

What’s the ratio? How much showing versus how much telling? Since I like arbitrary made-up numbers with absolutely no reflection in reality, I’ll say, mmm, somewhere in the 70/30 split range, with the 70% going toward showing over telling. More to the point: more showing, less telling.

What say you, Internet? What’s your thoughts on this oft-spoken writing adage? Spun from gold? Heaped with bullshit? When is telling appropriate? Give examples or you get the hose.

76 comments

  • Oh, ok, you got it. I think “Show, don’t tell” is the second-most repeated aphorism in writing advice. The first is “write what you know” and both of them want me to go stick my head in a pig. But you made this one make sense, damn you.
    I’m beginning to discover that your lists and articles are as helpful and inspiring as Stephen King’s “On Writing” was. When my Magnum Opus* is complete, it’ll be your fault. That’s all I’m saying….

    *Once defined as “A big Irish Cat”

  • I think it depends on your voice and narration. Though third person omniscient is currently unfashionable, the act of telling it requires can lead to some beautiful prose and wonderful word-smithery.
    Obviously, this is less needed for third-person limited and first-person. But I think it’s a shame we don’t have more telling–the art of narration, when done right, is one of the best parts of reading.

  • The phone call example is perfection. Telling is cool in a section that’s not meant to be emotional. But if an author really wants to squeeze tears or sweat from a reader, then both the character and the reader have to BE there.

    I think telling works well as a thesis statement followed by a scene showing great supporting evidence.

  • “Show, don’t tell,” and “This is passive” are the two things I see most often in critiques that make me stabby. Mainly because all it takes to get a sentence labeled as “passive” is a version of “to be” in it. It’s not always passive, and even when it is, it’s not always wrong.

    I’m also really confused by the idea that “I was running” is somehow less active than “I ran.”

    As for show and tell, I think the best time to gloss over things is repetition and the boring bits. You don’t need to see my character trudge up five flights of stairs. I can just tell you there were five flights then show the out of breath posture and torrents of sweat.

    Likewise, if my detective interviews two witnesses that give nearly identical accounts, it would be silly of me to redo the entire interview the second time, rather than just say “I got essentially the same information, with two exceptions.” Then go into that small part of the dialog.

    • @Bill —

      “To be” doesn’t make a sentence passive, and in fact passive sentences do not require to be. “I was eating cake,” is not passive; “The cake was eaten by me” is.

      Passive isn’t universally wrong, but often it’s clumsy, clunky, and less impactful.

      “I was running” versus “I ran” is a matter of where you’re dropping in the story and what you want us to think about that event. “I was running” asks us to consider the thing that happened during that activity — with the past progressive in play you could go with, for instance, “I was running when the bombs started to fall.” But if it’s just a description of action, you get (in my mind) more mileage out of “I ran.” Two words instead of three to say the same thing. Shorter, sharper, more direct.

      And you’re right that show/tell shouldn’t demand repetition or show boring action — but that’s not a problem with show/tell, that’s a problem with not knowing what to put on the page. You can just as easily “tell” a shit-ton of bad or boring information as you could “show” it.

      — c.

  • The main issue I have with “show, don’t tell” is that it takes up more space. Here’s where you have to know what to cut and what to leave in. As per Chuck’s example with the dead mom phone call, the simple declarative is quick and gets the information across, if that’s what you want. If the impact of the demise is to be felt, then it’s going to take a lot more than a few words. Showing is great, telling less so, but when you’re watching a word count, it’s good to know when to use which.

  • I think I agree with everything you’ve said.

    Telling does not necessarily have less impact when done right, usually more interesting if you can have the characters telling and having some sort of dialogue while learning what you need to.

    Big example of telling I can think of is the Lord of the Rings book. So much at the beginning of the Fellowship is about telling, and not just in the Prologue (about the lands, the Hobbits, etc) – but it begins to lose me because of the sheer quantity, and the only reason I punch through it is because I know that way better reading is to come.

    • @Lindsay — And that, I suppose, explains why I never could get through the LOTR books. (Blasphemy, I know.)

      @Jason — I think you’re conflating a lack of concise writing with the nature of “showing.” Showing instead of telling can still be curt, to the point. You can still show without wasting a ton of language. Sometimes telling — in particular with butt-tons of expository description or dialogue — can take up way too much space on the page.

      — c.

  • Love this! I think this is best take on the “Show, Don’t Tell” advice I have read. Like the others, I agree both techniques have their uses and it depends on what the author wants from a particular piece of writing: emotions vs. quick information, slow or fast pace etc.

    Thanks!

  • Showing takes more space on a page, is more engaging and feels more immediate to the reader, like a dance with the Jigsaw Killer, whereas telling takes little space, is more straightforward and unmitigated, much like a gunshot to the head.

    A writer who knows what he’s doing can use one or the other to emphasize or abate certain aspects of his story.

  • @Lindsay I know what you mean about the beginning of the Fellowship, and normally I would really hate that kind of writing, but here it’s different, because I love 1) the way Tolkien writes and 2) everything he writes about in LotR.

    @Chuck Stop what you’re doing right now, go read LotR, and then continue giving us awesome writing advice. 😀

  • “The planet had nine moons. The seventh moon was inhabited by a race of stick-like insectoids. Some of them worked as Customs agents.”

    “One of the stick-like natives of the seventh moon greeted me at the Customs counter. Its mandibles clicked. ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ it asked.”

  • I think that I am doubly doomed.

    I’m using multi POV in my WIP, but it surely is not limited 3rd.

    It’s not quite omni either, more a bit of arm’s length narrative distance, punctuated by closer inspection of what the current POV is thinking and feeling.

    Soaring then swooping would be a far way to describe it I guess, but hardly “fashionable” I fear.

    And I struggle a bit with this whole Show vs. Tell thing as well.

    It’s not necessarily that I don’t get it (although sometimes I wonder) it’s just that I don’t always agree with it.

    I read quite a few blogs during any given week, a few of them that offer “snapshot” critiques of short passages of a submitter’s prose.

    And the thing that just drives me bonkers s to see the critiquer say “telling a bit here”.

    I look at the text in question and find it to be quite satisfactory, workmanlike prose, that quite often (to me) doesn’t really warrant elevation to a whole cinematic description of the guy being a bit gassy and burping …

    “John burped” seems just fine to me. Sure I can write the whole bit out (I know gassy and burpy), but unless it’s adding something meaningful to the passage, or his burpiness is crucial to the plot or scene, what’s the point?

    The thing I’m trying to concentrate on is examining areas of dialogue and character interaction, and passages were the POV character is viewing another character, and trying to emphasize the “showing” bits there.

    Otherwise, the whole concept just drives me crazy trying to stay on top of it.

    • @Gru’ud —

      I wouldn’t count “John burped” as the author telling us something.

      All writing is the author technically telling the audience things, whether you say “John burped,” or “John’s cheeks bulged out and he let slip with a gassy gurgle,” or “John just shat his pantaloons.” Words on a page never truly show.

      It’s really more a style thing, a voice thing. Sometimes telling too much feels amateurish — “John burped” shows us as much as it tells us. It suggests he ate a big meal or perhaps that he’s rude. It’s an action, not an explanation. Now, if you said, “John is rude,” that’s telling. And not particularly engaging. I’d rather see the rudeness than be told it.

      Any action that helps to paint a picture is, by my mileage, showing.

      — c.

  • @Vero

    This bit you say here: “A writer who knows what he’s doing can use one or the other to emphasize or abate certain aspects of his story.”

    That’s what I’d like to think too, but I’m in need of a good solid treatment of the subject, written down somewhere that I can refer to. I dont suppose you have any sources you could give me?.

    I think I write reasonably well, but that certainly doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing. 😉

  • Chuck…nice to know I’m not the only one who never made it through the LOTR books. (now, if you’ll agree with me that the Beatles really weren’t that big of a deal, I’ve found a kindred spirit!)

  • It’s about balance, for me. Showing (through smart dialogue n stuff) works great when revealing the subtleties of what’s REALLY going on in a narrative, telling works great when moving the action forward. They should both be used together. But then hey, what the hell do I know?

  • @Gru’ud

    Take the example Chuck gave above with some character’s mother dying.

    Character A must tell character B that his mother is dead, breaks into a cold sweat and hovers over the phone chewing on his lower lip, feeling his blood rush into his ears at the thought of his friend’s reaction. An indefinite time later he dials and spurts out the news in a single breath “Your mom’s dead. Sorry, pal.”, hesitates and then hangs up and swallows the dry lump in his throat.

    Or

    Character A takes a deep breath and calls character B, and tells him “Your mom’s dead. Sorry, pal.”, listens to the silence at the other end of the line for a minute, sighs and then hangs up.

    Character A is the protagonist in both versions, and he uses the phone to convey the message in both versions, but because the first one is more on the showing side, it emphasizes character A’s relationship to his friend more than the second version, and the reader will attribute a greater meaning to it because of that.

    If in the next scene character A throws the gun away and steps over the dead mother on his way out, version one would give us conflict, while version two would give us only a protagonist.

    Did I get that right, Chuck?

  • Chuck, when my book is finally published (probably sometime after my death at this rate), I’m going to have to make sure there is a special acknowledgement for you and your Terrible Minds. Such wonderful help here. And in your 250/500 books.
    Showing is so much more fun to write than telling (for me anyway), and when I read it, back and the scene is fuller and richer. I’m all about the showing.

  • Yep. I think that sums it up for me. Thanks for putting it into a longer explanation (at least as far as you see it. I agree, btw). Far too often I see this offered ‘advice’ and the advisor flops it out there as some Mind Bending Truth and there appears to be no discussion to follow up. They sit smugly with their fingers in their lapels as if they have expounded on some Great Wisdom when they’ve really offered nothing more than a soundbyte platitude they feel makes them look smart but has really said nothing.

    You said something. Something good. As you usually do. 🙂

  • Nice post. The “show don’t tell” aphorism is often bandied about too much and with too little in the way of explanation from those offering it (sometimes to the point that I wonder if most of them really know what they mean. I get the sense they don’t). I took a class with John Rechy wherein we read several books and discussed how they used narrative and language to show or tell; most books do both, and most need to, because all showing tends to get breathless and feel rushed, while all telling feels slower and maybe less active and exciting. But books that effectively use the combination of both–among the ones we considered were Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Proust’s Swann’s Way–can do so excellently and take the rhythm of the text beyond merely the words of it.

    I think rhythm is part of it. A lot of people talk about the rhythm of sentences, mixing short ones and long ones between paragraphs, but that’s not the only textual rhythm writers can manipulate. Telling backstory versus showing a dramatic scene is another way.

    I also think genre is part of it. Novels marketed as “literary” often have, stylistically, the intellectual/instructive tone as of leading the reader by the hand you mention. It would sort of make sense, as such novels seem intended for slower reading.

  • Fucking A, Bubba.

    Brilliant post! Now off to smear this across my social networks as a baboon would smear its feces across its cage.

    Oh wait, should I have shown that instead of telling you that?

  • As a reader nothing makes me put down a book faster than telling. I really like Chialynn’s example for getting the point across. I wish I had a good way as a writer to not fall into telling. Any helpful tips?

  • You got it.

    My simplified way of explaining it to writers is – Telling leaves your reader passive. Showing makes your reader active.

    Active readers are ENGAGED readers.

    And once they’ve invested their energy in your work, they’re more likely to want to stick with it.

    So whip them into submission! Make ’em fill in the blanks, visualise what’s in the sub-text, speculate about what’s to come… and you’ve CAUGHT them.

    They’re ALL YOURS!

    MWAHAHAHAHAH….!

  • I’m going to put in a request here. What is your wisdom about….’He said and said he’ and all the colorful ways of saying he said etc. I personally use it as little as possible…but at times….can’t escape it…(sorry I know this has nothing to do with the above) but it irks me….how many different ways can you say it without sounding all Pollyanna!!…..see as if you didn’t already have enough things to do today!

  • I think ‘show don’t tell’ is a helpful guideline, if only because by law of averages (and the fact that telling is much easier to write than showing) if there’s something wrong with a story then it’s more likely to lie in that direction than the reverse.

    The problem sets in when people stop seeing it as a guideline and start thinking of it as a rule applicable in all circumstances. As far as I’m concerned there is only one cast iron rule in writing and it’s this ‘Do whatever the hell works,’ perhaps expanded to ‘Do whatever the hell works for THIS story.’

    Of course knowing what works for a given story is a much harder intellectual exercise than blindly following a set of guidelines so the ‘this is telling’ critiques aren’t going away any time soon, especially as it’s even harder to say what works for a story if you only have access to part of it. For example while I agree that in most cases having the death shown would be more effective storytelling it’s possible to generate a counter example: suppose the story you’re writing is about the protagonists disconnection and lack of closure over their mother’s death, in that case showing the death (something the protagonist not only didn’t experience, but which is actually counter to the protagonist’s experience) would probably diminish the story while beginning with a bald phone call, (or worse a text message) and then showing the protagonists (lack of) reaction would probably be the way to go.

    Like I said, whatever the hell works.

  • I didn’t “get” the showing vs. telling thing completely when I first started writing my novel. By the end, I think I had a much better grasp of it. Of course, that also meant that when I went back to the beginning for the initial pass of revisions, I was half-convinced the first five chapters of my novel had been written by meth-addled bonobos (bonobi?).

    After about the first week of editing, now that I finally had a decent good handle on it, I wrote a blog post to describe showing vs. telling (http://puddintopia.com/2011/09/20/writing-is-rewriting-lather-rinse-repeat/).

    I think I lean more towards 80/20 nowadays, because (to paraphrase @Chuck’s comment above) showing paints the picture. To me, the books that do the best job of painting are the ones that best engage my imagination. And, really, that’s most of why I read: to engage my mind in a world outside my own.

  • Sorry! Not so much a question, just a request for your upcoming posts….I would love for you to write about the subject of ‘tags.’ …. thats all. I mean for instance the ‘show don’t tell’ rule, as you said, is one of the hard and fast ones, saying that, I still got so much out of your post today….thats all 🙂

  • Great to hear some concise discussion on this oft-argued topic.

    I often think it is also the relationship between the abstract and the real. Foe example – saying ‘John was angry’ is an abstract statement with no context and hard for a reader to parse, whereas showing his anger through description places the statement in a real context and allows the reader to get a handle on that anger and feel it/see it/hear it.

    This is why I think that most of the situations involving showing versus telling revolve around the description of a character experiencing emotions. Emotions are a highly abstract subjective experience, so telling will always sound weak.

  • I agree with Lisa Pedersen. I too have used you like a rented mule for motivation and to learn the finer points of making the reader give a damn about my stories. I’ve bought several of your books, which is the least I could do for all your guidance. When published, I promise to put you in the Acknowledgments section and send you a bottle of bourbon. Please keep the writing advice coming.

  • “Show don’t tell” is one of those things needing an example. Simply telling someone “show me, don’t tell me” has the equivalent of trying to teach a penguin to fly. Beginners (and sometimes advanced-if there is such a thing-writers) have a hard time grasping the concept.
    It took me forever to understand “show, don’t tell”. I can say that I stared at a few “how-to” books with a glazed look in my eye wondering what the hell the book was talking about. That being said, I went back and read a few very good books and then did a 180 and read some awful-just god awful-books. Doing that helped me to understand “show me, don’t tell me”. Good, balanced books seem to have the equation down pat. But I have to agree with Aiwevanya; the author did what was good for the book.
    I suppose when going back through a manuscript the author can get a feeling for when it’s too much show and not enough tell or vice versa. For me it’s based on necessity. I’m not going to sit and try an emote a scene or paragraph when it’s just as easy to “tell” the information and move on.

  • Thanks for bringing this up. We need to erase the “show, don’t tell” mantra from the collective writer consciousness and replace it with and understanding of “show vs. tell.” Had someone taught me this early on I’d probably have saved a lot of time figuring it out for myself. I’m glad I did, though.

    One thing I do is ask myself how important a scene or part of a scene is to plot movement, because when you tell something that isn’t important to the plot, you keep the plot moving, and when you show something that isn’t important to the plot, it’s like slamming the breaks.

    It sort of relates to advice I read about writing one’s science fiction technology in a story. You just have to show your gizmotron working in a convincing manner (because that is important to the plot), you don’t need to tell the reader the nuts and bolts of HOW it works, because that stops the plot in its tracks.

  • BTW, if you struggled with LOTR don’t pick up The Silmarillion. I think the entire thing is “tell” and gobs and gobs of it and from what I can remember from 25 years ago almost no show.

    I think a good way to look at show vs tell is to tie it to emotion. If you want the reader to “feel” it, to have an emotional reaction, you really need to show it. If its summary or merely informational to move the story, telling is probably fine. Like some others have said, it is dependant on the individual story. I remember my first few critiques getting the “this might be too much telling” advice and having no idea how to fix it.

  • I’ll admit it is this one thing which gives me nightmares. I ALWAYS worry about the balance. I do so because I HATE it when the balance is off in books I read. Too much showing and I’m walking through vomit, too much telling and I’m closing the book. I know when it’s ‘off’ in other’s work, but in my own I have no blinking idea. Thanks heaven for betas and editors! Hip, hip… 🙂

    I do love this post – it spells it out and shows us the route. Cheers X

  • Hi, I’m John…and yes, I do like cake.

    For me, as an editor, showing and telling aren’t buzzwords that I slap in margins than walk away from – they’re indicative that what’s intended to be on the page is or isn’t clear (sometimes, yes, I do mark it because it’s a really good thing, and I want to see more like it).

    There is room for both in a manuscript, hell, there’s even room for both in a scene — what matters is how clearly you paint the picture in the reader’s mind and how much/how deeply you evoke the intended emotion(s) in them. (Like if you’re trying to write a serious conversation between two characters, I probably shouldn’t be snickering).

    That push/pull is CRITICAL for a story, regardless of how many POV you use (although seriously, don’t go nuts, it’s hard to follow, doubly so if you’re unclear about it) and regardless of which person you’re writing in (although sometimes one ‘person’ has an advantage over another for a certain type of storytelling).

    It comes down to intention – Put what you want down on the page, and then when you/others are editing, it can be clarified, amplified and kick-ass-ified.

    Love you Chuck.

  • PS I don’t know how or why, but I see a lot of people merging the Show/Tell debate with the Active/Passive debate. They’re different discussions entirely.

    Either can be active or passive, depending on psychic distance (how close or far the reader is to the thing shown) and the amount of detail (and which details) you want to provide.

    Just write the story.

  • I don’t buy that it’s the least bit important, none of it. If you don’t know what you’re doing, then it’s going to show. No amount of someone else telling you how to do it better, especially by way of some cheap aphorisms, is going to help. I can think of all sorts of examples of great writing that wraps itself around declarative telling, from famous to obscure.

    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … ” Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.”

    Likewise I’ve plodded through enough books which are soggy with showing, endless pages of the turgid stuff, sunsets and emotions shown in vivid colours and spread out over acres of land, to prove at least to myself that the other isn’t a promise of greatness either.

    If you are worrying yourself about such misguided popular wisdom, you’re already sunk.

    All writing advice, even this, is poison.

    • “All writing advice, even this, is poison.”

      The only poison is that statement, right there.

      I’ve found writing advice useful. I’ve found the saying, “Show, Don’t Tell” useful.

      I learned how to do what I did. I wasn’t born with it. I knew I liked it, and I sought ways to do it better.

      If you’re not a fan of talking about writing, I might suggest you find somewhere else to plop comments.

      — c.

  • Yo Chuck,

    Great post as always! You’ve been on a roll lately. Just about all your recent posts have been bookmarked, and I’ll put this one in my instapaper file for sure.

    One issue I had was that in your example of the mom’s death you copped out by making the showing physical. It could as easily be a Doctor or a cabbie ‘showing’ the mother’s death that way. How would a WRITER show it? How would the person on the phone show it using WORDS?

    Isn’t this the distinction you are making? That showing is also articulate, that we can do something with words that makes the imagination soar and incites us to reverie? If showing needed to be done with physical images we’d all be writing picture books or comics. But we’re writers, dammit! Aren’t those words of ours supposed to be good for stuff like this? Primary source be damned. If words can’t take us there, maybe I don’t want to go……

  • I’m not surprised you’re a fan of it. I’ve always wondered at your fixation on lists. Which by the way, why are they always ’25’ things?

    Now some of my advice is delivered with a semi-colon’s worth of humour, but then again, I mean it as well. Writing advice is worse than toxic, it’s generally useless. And if it is useful, it’s most often by accident or in spite of its intent. And it comes mostly from other authors, who as you admit, have had to learn how to do it. They’re dubious sources at best.

    Because I can almost guarantee that the stuff they do well they do well because they learned it from doing it and not because they read it off the back of a virtual box of matches. Authors are all different special snowflakes. Even the crap ones. Well, there are some that are really bad and really alike, which is part and parcel of their absolute horribleness. But beyond what is grammar, and that has very little to do with advice – that’s just language – I’m highly suspicious that what works for Joe is even going to be right for Josephine, let alone Hank.

    Even here in your original post, watching you muse and meander around what this advice means, and all the other comments doing the same, you can see that this sort of simplistic, and it’s simplistic, advice is writing’s equivalent of a fortune cookie or a few lines read from a daily horoscope. Anyone can interpret it in a dozen different ways. Now the thinking part, about what you’re doing and what you want to do, that’s fine. But the idea that you can say “show don’t tell,” and have it mean anything that is even close to universal, I believe is false.

    Next you’ll be telling us that story and plot are essential …

    As for being a fan about talking about writing, I am. If you didn’t want opinions – or disagreement at least, involved in that, why write a blog or broadcast it on Twitter? It was you who asked for opinions on the topic. And that’s mine. Seems fair enough. Don’t ask questions if you don’t want answers. And that’s my final piece of advice, worth exactly what it cost.

    • @EM:

      I cannot possibly follow that logic. I’m not sure who should teach writing if not other writers. I would not expect to learn carpentry from a plumber or haruspicy from an astronaut.

      And story and plot not being essential? Story not essential to the act and art of… story… telling?

      I’m just going to go ahead and assume you’re trying to be funny or clever or — well, what else, I don’t know.

      Of course “Show Don’t Tell” is simple. Too simple. It’s why I’m here, talking about that today. Teasing it apart. Finding the value (or lack of value) within.

      I’m all for talking about writing, but you’re not doing that. You’re talking about the value of writing advice or the value of this entire discussion. I don’t expect you should find it interesting or worthwhile, but I do, and others do, so if your only goal is to dismiss, then there is the door.

      Well, there’s no actually door there, of course, this being the Internet. But you have a browser and a magical address bar that will take you anywhere but here.

      — c.

  • I am part of a critique group and some of the most horrid short stories were filled with almost all telling. I felt like such an idiot repeating to them “Show don’t tell,” especially since I was a total naysayer about the whole thing.

    Trust me, if you see a story that truly needs more “show”, you will really appreciate this old saying.

  • Great article!

    I’ve found that writing first person can limit my ability to show rather than tell; however, that depends upon who (as in character type) is relating the tale. An uneducated person will obviously narrate with more “telling,” than say a poet or theologian, for example.

    Third person omniscient is my favorite way to write, and I feel that this form allows for more showing.

    Often, I’ll first write a story by merely “telling,” then go back on the first re-write and convert to “showing.”

  • @EMEdwards I don’t understand how these writers you refer to here: “Because I can almost guarantee that the stuff they do well they do well because they learned it from doing it” actually learned simply by doing it. Unless you have someone point out your mistakes or you read something that shows how to do it better, how are you going to improve? You don’t get better by sitting in a closet writing and writing. I don’t deny that writing improves through practice, but it is not in a vacuum.

    I come here for Chuck’s humor and the regular nuggets of writing wisdom he drops. I’ve found his technique provides a wonderful way to learn stuff that can be dry and difficult. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but if you can tolerate his foul language he has a lot of great things to pass along from his experience writing for a living.

    I’m scratching my chin here, you say you are a fan of discussing writing but you find it all worthless at best and in worst case poisonous. Why bother? In fact, I don’t appreciate your coming here and pooping where we are all enjoying a meal of nourishing word food.

  • Many things do need to be told: facts, figures, the hard, substantial stuff. Physical sensations or emotions benefit from showing. And, for me, it’s just more fun to show. I can use a snappy metaphor or insert character description or personality quirks. You know, show off a bit.

    “Cid was nervous”
    isn’t nearly as fun to write as,
    “The lean muscles of Cid’s arms flexed and rolled as he rubbed his palms against his thighs, claws leaving faint lines in the black fabric of his trousers.”
    Or if I need fewer words,
    “Cid gnawed his lower lip.”

    Writing isn’t easy for me. I love it, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, but the act of writing often leaves me feeling gut-punched and broken. If I’m given an opportunity to serve the story and have an absolute blast while writing it, then you better bet I’m gonna seize it.

  • I figured out “show don’t tell” eventually, but it was a major bugbear for a long time because I lacked a cuddly and parental Wendig to sit me on his knee and show me The Mysteries and True Wisdom.

    I was interpreting it as “Needs more details, so that people can properly imagine what’s going on.” So I’d do that, and get told, “Show, don’t tell.” So I’d add in more detail! And get an even faster, exasperated, “Show, don’t tell!” because all that was doing was making my work (even) more purple!

    Nobody explained it’s about how information, characters and the world are framed. I can’t remember when it clicked, but I remember being *really cheesed off* that nobody had just SAID THAT.

  • Show, Don’t Tell. One of the biggest grizzly bears of writing, imo.

    Another writer’s blog I read, The Other Side of the Story by Janice Hardy, talks about using point of view to get a handle on show vs. tell.

    Lately, I’ve been experimenting with this theory and I find it’s helping a lot. For me, how much and when to show or tell depends on a lot of different factors. Tone, voice, pacing, plotting, characterization…the amount desired changes from chapter to chapter. If you have a particularly action packed chapter where the bullets are a-flying, you might have more showing. A more introspective chapter might have more telling.

    Of course, depending on the writer’s particular style, it might be vice versa.

    So, rather than drive myself crazy with wondering how much is enough, I simply try to sink as deep into the character’s point of view as possible. A female character might notice clothing more than a male character (or not, if the male character is gay and fabulous 😉 ). I try to let the character dictate how much showing and telling there is, and keep all of it in their voice. I’ve noticed that telling goes down easier if it’s in the character’s voice.

    I still read through adjust things after the draft is written, but it’s not quite as sticky as it used to be now that I can ask myself, “Is this something the character would really notice? Is this too chatty? Do I really need three pages of description here?”

    It’s not a perfect solution, especially if you’re not writing a “close” POV like I usually do, but it helps.

    I hope this all made sense. My brain is mush at the moment on the account of my 7 week old.

  • “Show, don’t tell” has always been, for me, to cut down on exposition and description and concentrate on getting the point across instead. This is something I learned when writing for comics. “Walls of text”, as we call it, are severely frown upon in this medium. Narrators and voice-overs are seen as old-fashioned, obsolete devices. We have to do everything with dialogue, the most succint and direct, the better.

    An example for prose would be in character building. I’d rather show a character being passive-aggresive, rude, or plain clueless, than just coming out and saying it. It’s less boring and it’s just more subtle. I hate it when a writer just beats you over the head with a large ham.

    Show, Don’t Tell. Indeed, a good advice.

  • “Show, don’t tell,” was the first piece of advice on writing i recieved from an English teacher. The next was “Don’t be redundant. Say it once and move on.”

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