Show, don’t tell. Is this the worst advice given to writers?

I’ve been having a debate with some of my writerly colleagues on the popular piece of writing advice: Show, don’t tell. It came up when a friend had her novel critiqued and the reader in question had referred to the strong authorial voice in her narrative and advised that she needed help with the rule, ‘Show, don’t tell.’

I am not here to argue that novels should be all tell and no show. Not at all, only that I’m tired of the bad rap that ‘telling’ gets when it is a vital part of storytelling. The question is not whether you should show or tell but when you should utilise these techniques and there are reasons for both. It is undeniable that writers should endeavour to write dramatic and engaging prose and one of the ways to dramatise your novel is to ‘show’, in other words use active language and detailed imagery through which the reader may surmise your meaning or ‘experience’ it fuller than if they were simply told what was going on and where. Showing involves dramatising your scene with the use of the senses, active verbs and cleverly drawn detail. But competent writers make full use of all the tools in their writing box and telling is also one of those tools.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

When I hear of writers working to remove all the ‘telling’ from their novels, it makes me weep onto my keyboard. And to make matters worse, I recently read an article where the writer advised that there was almost no reason to use the verb ‘walk’ in your novel, that there were always more active ways to ‘show’ ambulation. What on earth is wrong with ‘walk’? I can’t think of a better word for getting a character from point A to point B. I’m sorry but the odd ‘he strode’ or ‘she traipsed’ if justified is fine, but I do not want to read a novel where characters: prance, trip, skip, dance, lunge, glide or stagger all over the joint. Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats a well-placed active verb but there is a reason why some words come to us easier than others and that’s because they hold the truest meaning for what we are trying to convey.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is too frequently dished out as the ultimate writing rule, to be followed through every sentence of your narrative and shoved down the throat of every novice writer who has ever dared put pen to paper for the last thirty years. I say roughly thirty years, as it signals the beginning in a surge in Creative Writing Courses.

I’m not saying that CW courses alone spread this kind of mindless advice, I’m merely suggesting that in order for any course of education to work there has to be a set of directives to follow with regard to teaching, a body of rules has to exist in order to guide the student and it is my belief that, as the popularity of these courses has grown so has the body of rules – Show, don’t tell being the first sacred commandment to learn. The danger with all these rules is that we end up with fiction that reads like a literary version of paint by numbers. Thank the literary gods for rule-breakers.

I once read an article, written by an agent, who said that under no circumstances (paraphrasing) should a writer choose the ‘telling’ mode for the opening paragraph. The same agent claimed to reject any novel that came into her inbox if it had any ‘telling’ in the first fifty pages. Keeping this in mind, this agent would have rejected the following beautiful pieces of writing where all of the supremely talented writers have struck that wonderful balance between show AND tell.

It was 1936. The Olympics. Hitler’s games.

Jesse Owens had just completed the 4 x 100 metre relay and won his fourth gold medal. Talk that he was subhuman because he was black and Hitler’s refusal to shake his hand was touted around the world.

(The Book Thief. Markus Zusak. Black Swan/Transworld. 2007)

*

Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world.

(The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde. Random House)

*

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

(Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. JK Rowling. Bloomsbury 2001)

*

 No one can persuade me that any of the pieces above could be improved upon by ‘showing’ more.

Who I feel most sorry for is Anton Chekhov, who reportedly started this whole thing. How he must be spinning in his grave to know that his name is being trotted out by every hack whoever gave bad writing advice. Here is the oft-chanted quote:

 “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

If indeed Anton Chekhov did utter this advice, he most certainly did not mean for it to be steamrollered into every piece of fiction written. Chekhov’s short stories have a strong authorial presence, plenty of exposition/backstory and well-paced passages that utilise the narrator to move time along. In other words: loads and loads of TELLING. There is the possibility that if he did offer up this advice it was in response to the kind of novels that were popular at the time – diegesis heavy and often with intrusive narrators. But times and literature have changed, this type of advice is not something that should blow any modern writer’s mind but rather something to be aware of and ignore accordingly.

Use telling wisely. Use it to move time forward. Use it to create pace in your novel. To dramatise, a scene needs space around it. If every sentence is packed with action-specific verbs, adjectives and detailed, slow imagery, where will our tension come from? How does the reader know which of the seemingly pertinent details the narrator is lingering over is relevant to the current action or the action going forward?

Use telling to reveal character voice, use it to reveal narrative voice. Just keep a balance and make sure it’s a conscious authorial decision rather than laziness that’s causing you to ‘tell’ over ‘show’. But above all, use telling to show off your showing!

 

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Show, don’t tell. Is this the worst advice given to writers?

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Jane. There is a slight balance between the two techniques in the last two examples but they are more in favour of diegesis/telling. The Dorian Gray sample is an internal reflection from one character about another so therefore passive, it also consists of a list of adjectives rather than giving character attributes in an active way. The final sentence holds the giveaway -one felt – and then we are told/or its suggested that he’s kept himself unspotted from the world. The para from Harry P is classic narrator telling us about Mr. and Mrs Dursley. We are told, along with the use of the character’s voice that they are not involved with anything mysterious or strange but we are not ‘shown’ these attributes through action.

  1. Those are really good examples of telling working really well. I get very frustrated with this rule too, because you only show and don’t tell, your novel will end up being double the length it should be. And I actually WROTE a novel that was double the length it should be, so I know. The problem is it’s all so subjective. When I think telling works it makes me feel I’m reading a writer who is really confident. But when it doesn’t work, it really annoys me!

    1. I couldn’t agree more Miriam. It’s all about balance, neither technique should be considered less important than the other. Both are essential to the enjoyment of a good story.

  2. For me, show vs. tell applies more to emotions. Description, again for me, is pure tell. You’re telling me the sky is blue, the sun is shining, the roses are in bloom; as you should. And while saying “I’m angry” is short and sweet, I’d like to be shown the build-up to that emotion. The annoyance that leads to frustration that leads to anger.

    On a whole, general writing advice is noise. Show vs Tell doesn’t get down to the specifics of each individuals project, and when we’re new to the craft, we’re going to listen to everything from our betters like it’s gospel. I know that I did. Our writing will suffer, but if we don’t continue on this writing journey, we’ll never learn the finer nuances that things like “Show vs. Tell” are really talking about.

    tl;dr KEEP WORKING ON YOUR CRAFT! A sprinkle of salt goes a long way.

  3. I agree, i’ve been tweeting over this part of my book for a long time now. In my dark fantasy novel I’ll call it a ‘living prop’. 😉 That’s going to each town and city and razing though them like a eating a chicken bone. In the early chapters my main characters don’t know it exists, so can’t be there to see it as it’s miles away. There’s no way around not using telling. I’m dreading the irritating comments I’m going to get. (not here. my online writing group.)

    We really have to be careful if you know something works don’t ‘fix’ it or you have this gorgons knot of a ‘story’ I also hate it when they try to get me to over explain The cridics problem I feel are that they treat each story and each anther like they are complete newbies each time, with every chapter. But an anther who’s been at this for months, years and knows a thing or two now simply can’t use that advice. Whole great stuff at first, later on I’m wondering why they are still issuing the same junk again?

    I know darn well that the wip has gotten better. It’s not complete crap now I’m sure of it. (lol) Don’t get dragged back down after months of studding and writing into thinking that your back to square one with new critic. This is not the case, they are being too rigid. So watch out for this. Nod your head, say think you and toss out the junk. (There’s always good stuff mind you but it’s becoming less so lately.)

    Short and sweet: Watch out for the cridics that continue to issue out new author advice. imp they simply don’t know any other things to spot! Yes I’m a new author but not that new. Hopefully someone will get what I’m saying.

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