discussions writing & publishing

Show Don’t Tell, And Other Myths

It’s been on my mind, so I thought I’d dig up this old article on breaking writing rules, which is fantastic (and which I saw originally via Ursula Le Guin):

The three most often repeated “rules of writing,” recited by rote and left uninvestigated and unchallenged in virtually every writing workshop and English class are capable of doing terrible damage to good writing. The Terrible Three are:

Show, don’t tell.

Nonsense. Good writing involves “showing”–that is, dramatizing–as well as “telling”–employing exposition. An avoidance of “telling” may convolute clear motivation (exemplified by “showing”). It compromises setting. It obfuscates situation.

We do not speak of “story-showing”; we speak of “storytelling.” Many great works of literature are largely expositional, including Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and–try this one–Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” In the latter’s “Overture,” Proust roams, in exposition, through the inner landscape of the child Marcel’s need for his mother’s nightly bedtime kiss. Now he can move on to exemplify–“show”–the drama of his foiled attempts. Thomas Bernhard’s masterpiece, “Concrete,” is all gasping exposition until the end opens into eerie dramatization.

The effect of “scenes”–showing–may be created through refined “telling,” as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which is in major part exposition, with scant dialogue often used as dramatic punctuation: “The world is round, like an orange.”

A good way to add life to exposition is to capture a dramatic moment, to hear someone speak, see someone move, act–yes, show–since time is the accumulation of moments.

It is hammered into people (by other people – not by any writing authority) that you must show not tell. It’s rarely questioned, but it should be. This kind of stuff is often used to help start-out writers, taught in basic writing workshops across the land. It certainly has a place to be considered, but they probably forget to un-teach it.

Of course, you need to know when you’re doing it, and to apply it in a controlled manner. I’m reading the Man Booker winner, Wolf Hall, at the minute, and I’m being told rather than shown an awful lot. And it’s great, it’s rich, it’s multi-dimensional, it’s stylish – done under a well-controlled point-of-view character, it’s a powerful way to tell a story. And yes, I do it myself (from a character’s POV; I’ve not done the omnipresent exposition all that much).

Also, I think we each have a different meaning of “show don’t tell”. Dumping huge amounts of information, which characters obviously know but is a cheap way of delivering information about the plot, is famously not cool. There are many other examples of what’s not cool, and you should know the rules before you break them.

I don’t like giving writing advice – it’s a very awkward thing to do – but I do like telling people that they’re freer than they think they are when it comes to constructing fictional prose. Read the rest of the article here for the other myths of “write about what you know” and “always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to”.

What do you think? Is it something you worry about in your own writing? Are you even conscious of it?

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

26 replies on “Show Don’t Tell, And Other Myths”

I dipped into The Passage last night. First chapter is exposition but exposition done very, very well. I want to read it again so I can pick it apart (I think the strength is in the little extra details that give it depth, character, etc.).

I know how strong I am as a writer. I don’t think I could do exposition as well as Cronin does, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try one day or even eventually succeed. You can’t really up your style mid-novel so I pretty much limit myself to 3rd person limited POV and keep the exposition to a minimum.

I’d heard it said that no matter how good a writer you are, there’s always someone better out there. I kinda like that. Gives you something to aim for, to drive you on and improve your craft. My big problem is getting half-way through a project and then wanting to re-write it in a slightly improved style

Lol, I often argue with my beta readers that a little exposition is fine. So long as it’s not right in the middle of an action scene.

Great post. Nice to see it put so succinctly.

Yes I worry about it, but only when I’m editing. When I’m writing the words flow how they want to flow. If they want to tell and not show that’s up to them.

Personally, I think that if you can show, you should. Telling has its place though and shouldn’t be discarded altogether. If you are “telling” when the opportunity to “show” presents itself, I would hope that there is a reason for it.

Taken in the most basic sense, the “show don’t tell” rule teaches school children about creative writing and is used to prevent lines like “she felt ill” and encourage wider use of vocabulary, for example, “she clutched her stomach with a groan.”

Another interesting “myth” that I found thrusted upon myself by a student (her school English teacher had told her this one) was not to, under any circumstances, use abstract nouns. I’m not so sure that is a rule I would want to enforce either.

But what would I know…

My main usage of the “show, don’t tell” criticism is with character development. Especially in SFF, where it is all too common to have characters introduced as pen-portraits, courtesy of the omniscient narrator.

I’d think there’s also something to be said about “show, not tell” in world-building. The books in which we experience the vast, rich, alien, fantasy world are better than the ones where it is described to us in long, fact-heavy passages (often in italics, for some reason).

One thing about so-called writing rules is that they don’t matter, and they can be broken, but only assuming that the writer in question has a good grasp of them to begin with. If you don’t understand the rules inside-out and back-to-front, then you don’t have the skills to break or subvert them successfully.

I don’t really remember any writing advice or theory from school – we only did creative writing in primary school, which was a long time ago. Personally I don’t worry about rules as I write, as I count myself among those who know how they work. Therefore I don’t consciously break them, but find I frequently do because that’s what my subconsious is wanting to write. Seems to work so far!

So I think rules are essential for learning the craft, but once you’re there, you can do what you like. It’s like driving. You don’t become a stunt or racing driver without learning to drive first. That’s the basic foundation. Once you’ve got that, you can do what you like.

One of my favourite authors is H.P. Lovecraft, and of course he is nothing but telling rather than showing!

Thanks for the comments, guys.

WRitersBlockNZ – abstract nouns? Really?!

Jared – okay, you’re going to have to name an example where it doesn’t work. 🙂

Adam – yes, of course, Lovecraft is one of the best examples of telling!

I think the other rule I often hear is don’t head jump in a scene. This is an odd one as well, as for the most part in the books I read, they don’t do it and mostly, it’s viewed as a sin. During a recent event in York the audience was given this advice by a few people involved in publishing (literary agents, editors, publishers etc). However, I am aware of some famous writers who do it, and of some who do it well, and some not so well. Perhaps it’s a skill to do it well and new writers shouldn’t do it until they are established. Is this the case? Personally, I don’t like it when I read it, even when done well, I just prefer one point of view, and I never do it myself.

I’ve often decried the Show-don’t-tell police, for all of the reasons given above.
The one useful area that’s been highlighted for me recently is the unnecessary addition of ‘tell’ after showing – that is, pointless qualification of self-evident facts after describing them to the reader.
For example, describing an everyday scene and then going on to explain that it is an everyday scene, or the opposite, describing something that is clearly remarkable and then explaining that it is out-of-the-ordinary.


@Stephen – by “head-jump” do you mean change POV within a single scene? I think that’s one of those things were if done for a reason, and done well, it’s fine. But if a writer doesn’t know how to do it or, more importantly, *why* to do it, it should be avoided.

When I run into the SDT-police, I always want to point out it’s actually impossible to show in a text, well, unless I’m allowed to make little drawings or add pictures and pre-hypertext additions (like “arrows” and “footnotes”) and still call it a novel. It’s the tragedy of words (and sometimes of the writer) that words cannot show: that’s what images are for. Not even going into the problem that the reader will read into your words what s/he wants, not what you want, so how are you ever going to show what you want to show?
SDT is not a rule, it’s a convention which states that telling is static and showing is active, which boils down to “Boring!” versus “Kapow! Yay!” It used to be okay to have lengthy descriptions and not too much action in a novel, but in the modern world everything has to be fast and furious. Which means text has to compete with movies, which is plain silly.

In my own writing: I don’t work out the world on paper before I start a story, so the world evolves as the story grows and I don’t consciously think about where the information goes. It does mean I have to clean and tighten up some of the exposition or redistribute some details in the editing stage, usually in the scenes I wrote first when the world was still flat. And keep an eye out for starting scenes all the time with exposition, which is normal in the developing stages but monotone for the reader.
When betas quote the silly rule, they think it’s their diagnosis. But I’m the doctor, the diagnosis is for me to decide. I treat “SDT” as a symptom: something kicked them out of the story. Could be environmental, especially if none of the other betas mention it. Or it could be a case of coitus interruptus, where the reader’s flow is geared towards !action! and !catharsis! and not a lengthy exposition. If anything, it’s the reader’s flow I sometimes find hard to grasp as a writer, because I know the whole story inside out and all sorts of stuff that will never end up in the text, and worse, I shift scenes and completely lose track of what the reader knows or not.

As a reader it’s one of the reasons I don’t like multi-POV novels all too much. Too often the author forgets that the reader has already been nail-biting through a chapter of character Y after the obvious cliffhanger with character X, and when picking up X’s story again starts with a lengthy exposition. That’s not even teasing, that’s torture. So I end up skipping pages (“Yadda yadda yadda… Ah! Here’s the action”) which makes me kinda sad, because the writer spent time writing those words, trees died to make the paper, and I had to earn money so I could spend it on those pages.

I only worry about it on an extreme scale. I learned long ago that the “show, don’t tell” stuff is flexible. Sometimes you can tell, and sometimes you can’t. It all depends on how you do it, when you do it, and so on. Sometimes you have to tell. It’s inevitable. But how you do it can make or break your fiction, I think.

So, I only worry if I’m doing too much telling.

@Mark yea… abstract nouns. Glad I’m not the only one who thinks that’s weird… Can’t believe what they’re teaching kids in school. I go and tutor them and their school teachers go and undo all my good work LOL

@Stephen and @Adam I hate head jumping. I’m a chronic skim reader so it confused me and I hate having to re-read to understand. The one POV rule is one I stick to quite religiously. Adam, do you have an example of when it works well? I’d love to know how to do it but I haven’t found an example I like enough to make me want to give it a go.

“Instead of writing, ‘she felt terrible,’ [a writer] can show — by the precise gesture or look or by capturing the character’s exact turn of phrase — subtle nuances of the character’s feeling. […] One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should ‘show,’ not ‘tell.’ And this, it should be added, is all that the writing teacher means. Good writers may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings.”
— John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

Oooh yes. I always argue very fiercely about breaking that particular one.
And I remain convinced that it’s always a bad idea to follow a rule to extremes without questioning or understanding it. That way lies disaster.
(a lot of so-called rules such as the POV ones are recent conventions devised for readers with little patience and short attention spans–which is actually quite depressing when you stop to think about it)

This is so interesting to me.  I’m taking some writing courses right now, and the feedback I keep getting is, “show don’t tell.”  It’s really frustrating to me, because I really want to break that rule, and I feel like what I have going so far is good.  Perhaps I am just telling too much.  Maybe a little telling is okay, but just not information dumping?

I think a lot of writing courses don’t really know what they’re about – I mean, fiction is a very free and open territory in which to write. I know show don’t tell is often taught to get people to show action, but that leads to incredibly dry and dull reading experiences. I think the best thing to do is read lots of great fiction – and see what those authors do, whether or not they’re showing or telling. 

There’s good exposition and there’s bad exposition. Because a gifted writer knows how to use exposition artfully does not give a free pass for a new, inexperienced, often unschooled aspiring writer to use exposition by the truckload. Hence, the “show don’t tell” advice is warranted. You only need spend a few days reading through a slushpile of un-agented blind submissions to see countless examples of wretched exposition and very few, if any, examples of it used successfully.

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