Six impossible things

Show vs. Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the two most misunderstood and misapplied pieces of writing advice that are commonly given to new writers (the other being “write what you know,” but that’s a different post.) It’s most commonly trotted out in relation to characterization, where “show” generally means “dramatize.” That is, rather than saying that George is both mean and a miser, the writer “shows” him complaining about his restaurant meal in order to avoid leaving a tip, turning the heat down on a bitterly cold day, kicking a puppy, etc.

One ought never, according to this advice, write something like “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone…a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!” That would be bad writing. Fortunately, nobody told Dickens that, or we wouldn’t have that lovely description of Scrooge.

There are two things one needs to be sure of when this sort of advice is trotted out: first, that the writer receiving the advice understands what the phrase really means; second, that the person so blithely giving the advice understands what it means. When one is clear on both of those, one can then decide how one wants to apply it in one’s current project, and/or whether to take the blithely given advice to heart.

The first problem I nearly always run into when I’m arguing with someone about this is that they don’t understand that “Jake stumbled out of bed, shut off his alarm, and sleep-walked through his morning routine” counts as “showing” just as much as saying “Jake stumbled out of bed in the general direction of the alarm. He got the alarm shut off after three tries, then shuffled into the bathroom. He turned the shower on and brushed his teeth while the water warmed up. He had time for a longer one than usual this morning, which almost made the damned alarm worthwhile. He was contemplating, in a groggy sleep-soaked fashion, whether to shave or pretend for the rest of the day that he was growing a beard, when the scent of coffee penetrated to the bathroom.”

The two descriptions have different levels of detail, but they are both “showing” what Jake is doing in the morning. The “telling” version is “Jake had a hard time getting up in the morning.” In other words, “telling the reader” means giving the reader the conclusion they would draw, without giving them any of the actions or thoughts or descriptions that would lead them to that conclusion.

None of those examples is inherently “better” or more desirable than the others – not the first, short dramatization; not the longer, more detailed dramatization; not the “telling” version that skips the whole boring getting-up-in-the-morning description. They are only more or less desirable in the context of the particular story the writer is telling.

And context means the whole context: pacing, characterization, plot, setting, theme, etc. If Jake having trouble getting up in the morning is eventually going to be important to the plot, the writer would probably choose one of the dramatized version – letting the reader come to a conclusion by observing the character in action is almost always more vivid and effective than just summarizing things. If the pace has been headlong and a breather would be welcome, the writer might choose the longer version; if the pace needs picking up, the writer might choose the “telling” version and look for a place later on to confirm the judgment by dramatizing Jake getting up some other morning. If it’s not plot-critical but adds to the theme or atmosphere in some important way, the shorter dramatized version might work best (assuming pacing considerations don’t enter in). It depends on context.

“Telling” the reader something is most obviously important when the writer needs to move lightly over a long period of time. “The long, dangerous trip to Byzantium took them six months, and they were nearly captured by pirates twice, but they arrived safely at last just in time for the coronation” lets the reader know that a) six months have passed, b) they were probably fairly eventful months, but c) the events aren’t particularly important to this story. Telling is also highly useful for background and plot-related exposition where there’s so much necessary material to get through that doing it all in dialog would be implausible, would slow the pace to a crawl, and would take far too many pages.

One of the first places people go wrong in applying the “show, don’t tell” business is in making it an absolute blanket “rule” that can never be broken…meaning that these writers use much less effective methods for certain things in order to avoid the evil expository lump. So once you have decided that what you are doing is, in fact, “telling” or exposition, you then have to decide whether it is a) necessary in this place, and b) effective in this place. If it is neither, then yes, it should probably be cut or rewritten more dramatically. But if it is merely ineffective-but-necessary, then what it needs is to be fixed, not to be cut.

  1. Thanks for your clear explanation of “showing” vs. “telling”. You nicely put into words what I have always thought – that it depends on the context of the story and the purpose of the sentence. I find that sometimes, a quick bit of “telling” is needed just to keep the story moving along.

  2. I totally agree! Show don’t tell is entirely a matter of context. This works perfectly for the last thing I read that might have needed this advice. It was a sudden switch to telling in the middle of a dramatic showing narrative and essentially, what it was, was the end of the story that the writer wanted to briefly bridge into the main narrative. The telling wasn’t wrong. What was wrong was the unheralded shift from one to the other. A scene break followed by a brisk summary would have done the job perfectly.

    I think in student essays we get a lot of the show don’t tell problem – or more precisely – Exemplify, don’t summarize. But even that is only applicable in context. You want telling and summary in the introduction and conclusion. You just don’t want it in the body.

  3. As someone who regularly betas (edits) fic for fanfic writers, there is another factor to consider in the show-don’t-tell equation: what’s the *ratio* of showing and telling? If the story is all showing, no telling, the reader gets bogged down in the details. If the story is all telling, no showing, it’s a detailed plot synopsis, not a story, and the reader doesn’t get enough details to get them emotionally interested in the story or the characters.

    What I usually tell people when show-don’t-tell comes up, is to read closely a scene they’ve written. What one detail can they add to make it real to their audience, to show what’s going on or what the characters are feeling? If it’s really bad, I tell them at least one detail per paragraph of showing. (This is particularly helpful during long dialog scenes which otherwise can end up sounding like two disembodied voices alone in a blank white room.) Is she cold? Is his voice rising? Are they studying the art rather than looking at each other? Etc. Then, once you’ve added appropriate details, go through and cut out the telling that has become unnecessary.

  4. When people advocate following rules off a cliff, it tells me that they don’t understand why the rule exists. In fact, if they quote something to me as a “rule,” I automatically question it’s application.

  5. ‘Describe, don’t explain’ was one of the key insights that were missing from my writing. For many, many years. The problem with mini-summaries is that some of the time they’re perfectly normal and perfectly good, but when you use them all the time, you distance the reader from the narrative, because the reader can’t be surprised – they already knows what happens: the character pours a cup of coffee, the character takes a shower, the character looks through their kitchen drawers. There’s no room for the waitress pouring coffee into Mr.Wrong’s lap, for the cloud of dust coming out of the shower head, for the list of odd things hiding in the kitchen drawers that the reader can muse over to consider whether they’re iimportant or not.

    At scene level, I have a pretty good handle on when to summarise and which events need dramatising. At sentence level, I struggle mightily, and my first draft – the first words I will put down at any point – are still likely to be ‘Gajut went to the archive and began looking for’ …

  6. Writing about the character’s habitual actions, like
    “There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always.
    “When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have.”

    Or the opening of Persuasion.

    But the really vital rule is Twain’s: “When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.”

  7. Huh. Meant to say that is effective — and even manages to demonstrate that the acts are not flukes.

  8. You’re right.It’s about balance.
    Chaarlie was a heavy drinker. Well,it’s OK but not very exciting.
    Charlie drank like he’d two livers. That’s writing.

  9. Thank you for talking about this. Now I have a better idea of when to use the different techniques.

    If I may ask, how is your current WIP coming?

  10. I love this! There is a time and place for both ends of the spectrum, but authors rarely say that aloud…

  11. I’ve always hated “show, don’t tell,” largely because, as you say, it gets tossed around as an absolute by people who don’t get it, but also because you’re “telling” a story, no matter how you phrase it. If you want to “show” a story, write a TV script.

    But of course “show, don’t tell” is much pithier and sound-bite-friendly than your definition above, or even than “give evidence rather than assurances.” (I think that was Scott Lynch’s phrasing, which I like a great deal.) And what fun’s writing advice if you can’t strip it down to a sound-bite that loses the real meaning?

  12. LizV,
    a friend of mine uses ‘describe, don’t explain’ which I found perfect, because it allows me to examine every line in turn – am I giving a summary? Am I describing what is happening and allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions?

    I have a long-standing habit of telling the reader what to do. It came out in various forms (too much internalisation being one of them) so for me, ‘show, don’t tell’ has become more, not less important as my skills improve.

  13. I just finished one of transitions chapters you talked about the otherday and it’s full of telling moments. When trying to figure out the pacing, I thought of your Frontier series and used it as a guide.

  14. You hit the nail on the head with this one (too cliche?). I submitted a piece to my writing group and had the no it all mark it up with massive red pen.

    sometimes “the vultures screech wrenched her from her day dream.” is sufficient. I guess I could have written, “the jagged call of the desert coroner left Sam trembling, her hands trembled causing the journal to tumble to the ground.”

  15. I love it when writing advice makes logical sense! Thank you very much for this piece of level-headed, intelligent advice. Simple rules and simple answers are all the rage, but rarely correct. You’ve invited us to think. That’s radical. 😉

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