Rethinking “Show, Don’t Tell”

Or

Do Either; Each is Beside the Point.

            One of the age-old adages of writing tips is “Show, Don’t Tell.”  It’s in nearly every book on writing I’ve read, it’s in my dad’s writing course (The Writing Course).  If you aren’t familiar with the concept, the basic idea is, when writing, your goal is to show the audience what is taking place in the story, rather than simply telling it.  You’ve probably experienced this in real life; two types of friends who relay a past experience…one simply tells what happened, “We went to the beach and saw manta rays jumping out of the water” while the other shows you what happened, “We were walking along the beach, our feet just outside of the tide’s constant grasping, when suddenly we heard something leap out of the water.  We turned and saw three manta rays flying above the waves, etc.”

I think the spirit behind the advice is helpful, but the phrase itself needs to be rethought.  I have found “Show, Don’t Tell” to inhibit my writing, rather than help it.  It champions the immediate-scene, and seemingly forbids exposition or narratorialness.

For me, I love writing dialogue more than any other aspect of a story.  When it comes to describing a scene, or an action, I start thinking too hard, I start relying on the thesaurus to figure out how to say “he stabbed the monster” again in a different way, I start using similes and metaphors like…a lot.  I write, “Damien stood up” and then delete it, telling myself, “You fifth-grader!  The audience can’t see him stand up.  How are his legs bending, how is his posture, does he grunt at the effort?  Don’t tell them he stood up, show them!  They must see what standing up really looks like through words!”  Much of this is my own obsessiveness, but most writers seem to have a healthy measure of self-loathing. That’s a different problem. My problem is “Show, Don’t Tell” overwhelms my thoughts so much sometimes I’ll just quit writing for the day.  Or I’ll fluff up a passage, or bear down on details that make the story chunky and distracted.

Now, I do not think that all the writing books (or my father’s course) that promote this cliché have got it all wrong.  I don’t think they’re prescribing a style that inherently cripples the writer.  By “Show, Don’t Tell” they don’t mean, “When you describe, make sure you detail every inch of action, every color on every leaf in the setting, make a long list of every angle of the scene.”  Tolkien was master of all that kind of world-building, and even he had to stop himself at some point.  The givers of the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra try to better explain it with phrases like, “You want your reader to feel like he’s there.” or “Don’t tell the reader ‘Billy was evil’, cause the reader to conclude it by showing Billy’s villainous ways.”  This is more helpful advice, but even it limits the writer.

Here’s my prescription, and it might be flawed, and it might not work for everyone (I don’t want to be one of those writers who gives off that his way is the only real way to write.  I say “whatever works”, and so on).  My prescription is, “Show? Tell? Just Make it Interesting.”  Now, before I expound, I will say it’s good to aim at making your reader feel like he’s there.  You want him to finish the book with a sense of familiarity, like he knew those characters and saw the sights and felt the impact of their decisions.  On the other hand, a book isn’t a play, it’s not a movie, it’s not a visual medium.  It’s all in the imagination.  Lots of readers will not read every word you write, nor will they catch every word of description or action.  That doesn’t excuse you from putting it in the story; just bear in mind that in the final analysis they’re going to see the characters and settings the way their brain wants.  Whenever a film adaption of any novel comes out you’re sure to hear a hundred different “I don’t like the actor they chose for Gordon, he’s too pale” or “Silvia looks perfect!” or “I always pictured the trees with more translucent leaves” or what have you.  The fact of the matter is usually that Gordon was described as pale, and Silvia is woefully miscast, and the trees were clearly written as having dark, DARK leaves.  It doesn’t matter, for as many readers as you have, you have just as many different styles of mental concept art.  None of that’s to say descriptions are pointless, but they aren’t the end-all-be-all.  Nor are scenes of action.

Anyway, back to my method, “Show? Tell? Just Make it Interesting.”  I have this idea somewhat from my own experiences, but also from Brenda Ueland, a passionate passed-away author, whose book “If You Want to Write” proposes the importance of “interestingness” in writing.  Go read her book.  But now, I’ll use evidence to try to support my claims.  I will cite various examples from books by authors I admire.  The passages are brief, out of context, I admit…but should be considered all the same.  They are examples, regardless.  So, these are good authors, telling (for the most part), rather than showing.  And it’s all great stuff.

***

            “They left the cart in the woods and crossed a railroad track and came down a steep bank through dead black ivy.  He carried the pistol in his hand.  Stay close, he said.  He did.  They moved through the streets like sappers.  One block at a time.  A faint smell of woodsmoke on the air.  They waited in a store and watched the street but nothing moved.”

-Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Cormac McCarthy, the king of choppy, naked sentences (preceded by Hemingway of course).  “They did this, they did that.”  Sure, action is taking place, but it is told, it is explained; very little is shown.  Dead black ivy, woodsmoke, and that’s as good as the showing gets.

But it is interesting, things are moving along, he has his gun out but there’s no one to see.  They’re moving like sappers, whatever that means (I don’t know, it isn’t shown to me, and I’ve never been a sapper), but it’s militant, and things are dangerous.  I’m interested.

            “…the two men shook hands with the rather labored cordiality which is traditional in such meetings.  In actual fact Ransom had disliked Devine at school as much as anyone he could remember.”

-C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet

Later we learn why Ransom hated Devine, but at the outset we readers are force-fed Ransom’s stance on Devine.  Many authors nowadays say that’s a no-no.  Lewis should have led us along, showing us that Ransom hated Devine in his actions and dialogue, in the immediate-scene, not told it flat-out, or given anecdotes as happens later on.

But I say, who cares?  Character A disliked Character B, that’s good to know.  It’s brought up again and again, even shown in immediate-scenes, but for Lewis to tell us it before any of that, it’s informative, it’s interesting.  It begs the question, why does Ransom hate Devine?  Keep reading.

            “ ‘Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin.’

            ‘Curse his name, yes,’ said Thorin.

            ‘And Thrain your father went away on the twenty-first of April, a hundred years ago last Thursday, and has never been seen by you since – ’

            ‘True, true,’ said Thorin.”

-J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit 

Here’s a great example of not only telling rather than showing…but also expositional dialogue between two characters discussing facts they already know.  This kind of trope was parodied hilariously in the new season of Arrested Development by Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor’s characters, where they both inform each other of their plans, and keep remarking, “Why do we keep explaining things we already know?” or something to that effect.  In the above example, Gandalf is telling Thorin about his grandfather’s death, his father’s disappearance, and Thorin replies, “Yes yes of course.  I know these facts.”  Tolkien is giving us dwarf history in no subtle terms, nor subtle methods…

But it’s interesting.  We’re learning of a battle, a murder, an enemy, a hint at the longevity of dwarven vitality.  It’s all very plain, all very told, and all very intriguing.

             “I am not able to say, with precision, from what country Hop-Frog originally came.  It was from some barbarous region, however, that no person ever heard of — a vast distance from the court of our king.  Hop-Frog, and a young girl very little less dwarfish than himself (although of exquisite proportions, and a marvelous dancer), had  been forcibly carried off from their respective homes in adjoining provinces, and sent as presents to the king, by one of his ever-victorious generals.”

-Edgar Allen Poe, Hop-Frog  

Another history lesson; Poe is explaining to the readers the backstory of Hop-Frog.  It’s vague, between lacking a name for Hop-Frog’s original homeland, to mentioning the young girl’s “exquisite proportions” (again, whatever that means).

However, Poe is still telling (gasp, telling) a story here.  It’s a strange story, which Poe is somewhat known for, and he paints a clear picture of Hop-Frog’s lowly, kidnapped origins without showing us much of anything.  He relates bare facts in a subjective, narratorial tone, and it’s all clever and insightful anyway.

***

           Again, I don’t believe that those who promote the “Show, Don’t Tell” mantra mean everything must be written as an immediate-scene, or information can never be given through exposition, or that every description needs a plethora of adjectives addressing every sensory aspect of every setting.  I also believe there’s a chance I have misunderstood this saying ever since I heard it, and have allowed my own dysfunction twist its meaning.  But I don’t find the saying very insightful or helpful now that I’ve rethought it.  It’s too blunt and too limiting.

I think what “Show, Don’t Tell” aims at is great.  A good story is experienced; it isn’t spelled out.  You walk away from a good book feeling like you knew the characters, saw what they saw, felt what they felt.  And I think that can be accomplished through showing or telling, as long as it’s interesting.  I don’t think my revision of the cliché is very good, but it helps me to write with a more focused purpose.  I do not think there is one single absolute way to write well, though I do think there are guiding principles to consider.  The only absolute I cling to is ‘interestingness.’

Your writing should be interesting.  Show or tell, show and tell.

Your reader should be interested.  People don’t sit and stare at pieces of paper, hours at a time, for any other reason.

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About Forrester Lybrand

I'm a poet and author. I create good fiction and good fantasy.
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10 Responses to Rethinking “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. Julie Brown says:

    I like your thoughts. As a reader more often than a writer, I find myself most engrossed in literature that employs both showing and telling, as you suggested. I recently read The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown and admired his varied use of dialogue, descriptive language, and short, choppy, “telling” sentences. It was perfect for me, especially given the genre. No one likes getting hung up on silly descriptions when they just want to find out what happens in a fast-paced action scene. You’re right–consider the mood you’re trying to set and make it interesting.

    • Well said. Being mood-conscious is helpful as well. It’s almost like a good classical song with varying movements. Some parts might be slow and sonorous, others staccato and shrill.

  2. Jake Ritter says:

    I don’t write 3rd person very often, I enjoy the aspect of voice and perspective in story-telling too much. Nonetheless, these principles can still apply to 1st, and even a 3rd person narrator can cling to the perspective of a character.

    Perspective is the guiding principle I use when I write. If the detail is important to my character, then I’ll describe it thoroughly; if it’s not, then I’ll pass over it like my character does.
    For instance, my character’s wife might not get ANY descriptions if my character hardly even acknowledges her in my story–she may not even get a name–while the following paragraph may be entirely focused on every detail of a window that the character is currently obsessed with.

    But in focusing on what details interest your character more than your audience, you can end up losing your audiences understanding–or worse, their attention.

  3. (edited version – delete the previous one 😉

    Well, I love you and I think I get your point…it’s harder to show than it is to tell 😉

    As we talked on the phone yesterday, I reminded you that I stress it as a principle not a rule. When you use ‘mantra’ I know you are dissin’ those folks who make it a rule (and well you should). There cannot be rules for writing or there will not (ever) be a fresh voice. My whole approach to grammar and punctuation is also based on this principle-orientation.

    I also don’t think I mean what you mean by ‘show’…perhaps that’s what the ‘rules people’ mean. When you write the following as an example of ‘show’, I don’t see it:

    “We were walking along the beach, our feet just outside of the tide’s constant grasping, when suddenly we heard something leap out of the water. We turned and saw three manta rays flying above the waves, etc.”

    To me, you just told some more. There is so much assumed about the manta rays (that I know how they look and how they leap and how they fall and how they weep -sorry!). “Suddenly we heard” is an example of telling. For example,

    “Laura seemed to cut my cheeks with her freshly braided, ocean soaked, blonde hair against as she snapped her head and fell away from the sea when three jet-black rockets launched from the waves just in front of us. “Mantas,” she screamed with her brain splitting tween pitch. They floated just above the surface for a long moment with their triangled bodies giving the look of wings on a water creature; and without a splash, they returned to fly as submarine jets, silently beneath the yellow foam on the August waves in Gulf Shores, Alabama.”

    Well…whatever on my interestingness ;-)… but you see the point.

    When you quote McCarthy as telling…well, I see showing!

    “They left the cart in the woods and crossed a railroad track and came down a steep bank through dead black ivy. He carried the pistol in his hand. Stay close, he said. He did. They moved through the streets like sappers. One block at a time. A faint smell of woodsmoke on the air. They waited in a store and watched the street but nothing moved.”

    Dead black ivy…yes. Carried the pistol (implies / shows a lot…not in his pocket, etc)…yes. Moved like sappers…yes. One block at a time (slow)…yes. Smell (faint) of woodsmoke…yes. Nothing moved…yes.

    I see lots in that description, which is exactly what ‘show’ means. It’s the creation of the universe…and as you note…it isn’t about dialog. Telling McCarthy’s passage would be —

    They left the cart in the woods and went down a steep bank, walking slowly and close together the whole time. The carefully made their way to a store so they could wait and watch. It was quiet.

    Well, I’m glad you are thinking this through (and helping others at the same time). I actually agree with your concern…and anything that’s a rule or overdone is awful, just awful!

    Peace rules,

    Dad (Fred Ray Lybrand)

  4. holmeslybrand says:

    I think what Dad’s saying is right, it’s a principle that you took to mean something extreme. I’m not sure if making it interesting is quite the goal either, seeing as how what’s interesting to the individual can be rather subjective.. What you seem to mean by interesting is simply creating and holding tension…perhaps I didn’t read that correctly. I think show don’t tell still remains true, as Dad showed 😉 in the comment above; going through each book you pulled from. I think showing and not just telling is also a way to allow the imagination to flourish! Hemingway does this well, he shows quite a bit but doesn’t bore you down with adjectives that merely re-enforce what just took place; by doing this he opens the flood gates to the reader’s imagination.

    I think your issue resides in “How you show it” not if you show or tell it. Because you can show something simply or you can also show in great detail. And how you show something is completely dependent on your own personal taste and goal for what you want to reader to see. Don’t expect your reader to see more than you have given him/her.

    I’m also not sure that this principle meant to be used when writing dialog.

    Just thoughts, I could be way off, haha!

    Cheers,
    Holmes

    • So what exactly would “telling” look like?

      I think your comment and Dad’s reveal the lack of clear definition there is for showing versus telling. What is what, which is which? This is, in part, why I find the phrase unhelpful. It’s catchy, but not clear.

  5. fredlybrand says:

    Forrest,

    I’m little stumped. I’ve shown you examples & I’ve defined it. Additionally, I spend time on it in the writing course http://www.advanced-writing-resources.com

    It isn’t a hard-and-fast-rule, instead it is a principle to employ plenty. It doesn’t exclude narration or telling…it is simply a guideline Hemmingway (especially) was fond of using. I think you are taking it too far in your own mind. I hope you don’t take anything in the way of principles too far. Originality crushes rules…but principles do endure.

    We could say it “Show, don’t tell (unless it is better to tell)”

    It may distract you while writing, but that comes with being a young writer. The article below is really quite good…I hope everyone will take the time to read it and take it to heart! ESPECIALLY THE VERY LAST QUOTE (below).

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed by writers to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to experience the author’s ideas by interpreting significant, well-chosen details in the text. The technique applies equally to fiction and nonfiction.[1] The concept is not just literary: It also applies to speech, movie making and playwriting.[2][3][4]

    Nobel Prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway was a notable proponent of the show, don’t tell style. His famed Iceberg Theory, also known as the “theory of omission”, originates from his bullfighting treatise, Death in the Afternoon:

    If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

    “Show, don’t tell” should not be applied to all incidents in a story. According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”[5] Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time more concisely.[6] A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling.
    Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. According to Orson Scott Card and others, “showing” is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes.[7] The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, summarization versus action. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.[8][9]

    Creative literature (as opposed to technical writing or objective journalism) in general hinges on the artful use of a wide range of devices (such as inference, metaphor, understatement, the unreliable narrator, and ambiguity) that reward the careful reader’s appreciation of subtext and extrapolation of what the author chooses to leave unsaid, untold, and/or unshown. The “dignity” Hemingway speaks of proposes a form of respect for the reader, who should be trusted to develop a feeling for the meaning behind the action without having the point painfully laid out for him.

    According to novelist Francine Prose, who refers to the “show, don’t tell” concept as “bad advice often given young writers”:

    Needless to say, many great novelists combine “dramatic” showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out … when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.”[10]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don't_tell

    • Dad,

      I’m stumped too. I read (most of) the wikipedia article before I even wrote this blog. I have to agree with Francine Prose, whoever that is. Honestly, I don’t see how the article (which is mostly a bunch of random quotes by different authors with different perspectives on the adage) conflicts with my post. You say it isn’t a hard and fast rule, and I get that, I never thought you meant for it to be. Other authors actually do seem to mean it to be a rule. The very phrase says, “DON’T Tell”, which actually does exclude telling. I know you use it as a principle, and that’s great. Whether it’s a rule or a principle, it isn’t well-stated. The part where the wikipedia article states, “The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, summarization versus action.” is especially amusing to me, because the adage is not actually saying that at at all, which is why I don’t think “Show, Don’t Tell” is well-stated. People seem to have to explain it by contradicting it, which makes it no good in my mind. The article is essentially defining the adage by changing it, making it about finding a balance.
      All of the above are reasons why I don’t find the phrase to be helpful, even bearing in mind that it is a principle, not a rule. There aren’t real “rules” in writing anyway.

      If other writers hear “show, don’t tell” and get it, and go on and follow it well, that’s fine for them, their writing will prove to be interesting or not. Between the books on writing that I’ve read, and the article you posted, and the adage itself, I don’t find it to be all that helpful of a phrase. I think the principle I spell out in the blog post is more important. Focus on interesting content rather than the mode.
      Of course, it helps interestingness a lot if your reader feels like they experienced the story (to an imaginative level). It also is probably more interesting to let your reader infer meaning from events in your story, but even theN I’m sure there are interesting ways to spell things out for the reader without harming your story. It all depends. I leave some things ambiguous in my books, and others I have the characters clearly explain what they were up to, or starkly analyze events and morals. We’ll see if it pays off, but so far most people find my characters and events interesting either way, whether things are vague or straight-forward. I see the the two mix in all sorts of interesting books that I (and many thousands of people) love.

      I doubt McCarthy writes with “Show, Don’t Tell” in mind. I don’t think a lot of quality authors ever considered the phrase. That was my basic point. Nothing against The Writing Course, or Hemingway, or anyone who believes in the adage. I simply don’t think “Show, Don’t Tell” influenced those books or authors. Maybe it helps others. It hasn’t helped me much at all because there’s too much “balancing” involved to rework the actual phrase. It just ends up changing what it states.

      Your own re-write of the adage is more consistent with mine, if you swap “better” with “more interesting”. They’re practically the same. I feel like we agree on this point, and many others. I think we differ in our respect for the adage itself. You’re right, it could be my own problem reading into it too much.

      What I was trying to say in the blog was: Don’t bother about showing or telling, just write an interesting story in the fashion you wish to write it.
      I think that’s what matters.

      (I’m sure I’ve belabored and repeated, but it’s late and I wanted to make sure I said too much rather than too little.)

  6. fredlybrand says:

    Forrest,

     

    Sorry I haven’t responded— I’ve been busy with a few other items.

    I think you have forgotten that you are The Creator and the Sovereign over your own writing and they worlds (books) you create for us to visit.

     

    I guess I’m going to have to be blunt.  I believe your problem is that you are being subjective and are imposing your idiosyncrasies on others.  I hope that doesn’t seem harsh, but you could probably take a hint from the fact that it appears in most books on writing, etc.

     

    You said, “I think the spirit behind the advice is helpful, but the phrase itself needs to be rethought.  I have found “Show, Don’t Tell” to inhibit my writing, rather than help it.  It champions the immediate-scene, and seemingly forbids exposition or narratorialness.”

     

    And again,

     

    “My problem is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ overwhelms my thoughts so much sometimes I’ll just quit writing for the day.  Or I’ll fluff up a passage, or bear down on details that make the story chunky and distracted.”

     

    In summary you are saying – “Show don’t tell hinders me…therefore it is bad for everyone.”  I am almost 100% sure that you will disagree with my summary, but please pause for a moment.  You did not say “It doesn’t work for me,” but rather, “It doesn’t work (hurts) and should be re-thought (even though its proponents are well-meaning”).

     

    It works / helps thousands of people and has done so for decades upon decades.  I don’t get overwhelmed and quit writing when I think “Show, don’t tell.”  Hemingway apparently didn’t get inhibited when he had it in mind.  How can it be that “the phrase needs to be re-thought” when it doesn’t universally create this same stifling effect you experience in everyone?

     

    When we speak about principles we really mean general ideas that can be applied in lots of situations.  But situations vary, so the principle you will use can vary too.  The Bible does this very thing in Proverbs 26:4-5:

     
    4 Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
    5 Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
     

    When people take proverbs to be ‘rules’ or ‘promises’ they get fouled up.  How should we answer a fool?  Well, as you can see, it depends.

     

    If you are trying to “Show, don’t tell” as an absolute at every moment, then yes, you are going to be in pain.  It is a guideline to keep in mind and use when it makes sense (maybe even when it helps things to be more interesting 😉  You get to pick when it makes sense…and…when to ignore it.  No one ever means at all times and in every situation.

     

    ………

     

    Your suggestion is subject to the exact same critique you have about “Show, don’t tell.”  You say, “My prescription is, ‘Show? Tell? Just Make it Interesting.’

     

    I’ll adjust your critique to fit your own words about Show, don’t tell:

     

    [It would sound something like this]  I think the spirit behind the advice is helpful, but the phrase itself needs to be rethought.  I have found “Show? Tell? Just Make it Interesting,” to inhibit my writing, rather than help it.  It champions having to make everything interesting at every moment. Sometimes I just need to make it clear or get some facts into the story.  It is so hard to make it interesting all the time in every passage that I sometimes just quit writing for the day.”

     

    Of course, Forrest, you don’t mean it to be an obsessive rule.  You mean it as a principle or a guideline.  Here’s the point:

     
    * Saying things in interesting ways is cool and helpful…do it lots!
    * Showing the reader what is happening rather than merely telling what is happening is cool and helpful…do it lots!
     

    I am very sympathetic to your frustration (which is largely why I put The Writing Course together).  I have a very strong suspicion that you will someday be a writer that I can’t possibly match (maybe you already are).  The trick here is to realize that you are The Creator of your world (the book) and you can use any colors (e.g. principles) however you want to use them.  You have the power to pick and choose.  If you (or anyone) give up that right to pick and choose as the Sovereign over your own world, then you give up the right to be The Creator.  All the principles are just tools to play with as you create.  Having a rule to not use a rule is a rule you should never use 😉

     

    Love you man.  Rock on, Write on!

     

    Dad

  7. Pingback: If I read another post on ‘show, don’t tell,’ I’m going to puke … oh, wait | Salting the Muse

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