Don’t Don’t Tell

Could I see a show of hands out there from those of you who have heard the phrase “show, don’t tell?”  Whoa. That’s pretty much everyone.  I did a Google search on the phrase and got a return of over 1.6 million results.

I’m still going through them…

For anyone who raised their hand despite not being acquainted with the term, it is well intentioned advice to new writers meant to urge them to express ideas in a way that allows the reader to experience what is going on through actions, dialog and sensory descriptions rather than simply documenting action, thoughts, or emotions.

It’s advice that has been dispensed by countless people (myself included) and I think that at this point we can leave it to be discovered.  Lord knows there are about 1.6 million places to look for it. I also think that the advice needs to be tempered a little—not taken too literally.  After all, authors are in the practice of telling a story.  If all we did was show, we’d be turning out nothing but screenplays.

Don’t be afraid of description or narrative that will help move the story along. There are endless ways to get a point across. Some are more effective than others.  If you want to convey the anger of a woman scorned, for example, you can approach it from several different directions:

1) “You God damn pig,” Amanda screamed.

Usually “God damn pig” is not considered a term of endearment.  The screaming part is another clue that she’s pretty mad.

2) The slap cut through the din and Amanda swept out of the room with her jaw firmly set and face flushed. Gregory stood in her wake rubbing his cheek.

Again, slapping someone and storming out of the room will be a good indication of anger.

3) Amanda was pissed.

Sometimes you just gotta tell it like it is.  Don’t be afraid to do so as long as it isn’t done with adverbs or as a redundant piece of description. A succinct statement of fact on occasion is good.  Really, it’s okay.

What you might want to avoid, however, is something like:

1) “I hate you,” Amanda screamed angrily.

 Now here is a case of the kind of redundancy that I was talking about above. Screaming the words “I hate you” makes it obvious that she’s angry and the adverb “angrily” is certainly unnecessary.

 2) Gregory knew there was no question that Amanda was angry as he rubbed away the sting of her slap and watched the livid lady storm from the room.

This is another example of showing and telling and telling again. We don’t need Gregory to tell us she’s mad and we already know that Amanda is livid or she wouldn’t have slapped the poor shmuck and gone stomping off.

3) Amanda couldn’t believe the hurtful things Gregory was saying, she was nearly apoplectic.

Finally here is a milder form of redundancy.  Shock or disbelief are not necessarily equated with being apoplectic but there are more effective ways to avoid over describing a character’s emotions.

“Show, don’t tell” isn’t bad advice, it’s convenient advice. You should “tell” if that is what is required. Work at honing your craft.  “Show don’t tell” is a reminder urging us to be better writers.  Create your own style. Make your own rules and even break some of them from time to time.

Come to think of it I shouldn’t be “telling” you what to do…

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illustration by Andy Black


7 comments on “Don’t Don’t Tell

  1. A point of view from Reddit.com reader:

    “Why not share the difference? Telling is fine when the action being described isn’t dramatic (“he took the train home”). Showing is better when the action is dramatic, since it will often only be so within the context of this particular character’s experience. I know what being pissed is like, I’m reading this story to experience what it is specifically like for this character.
    Of course, you can tell us that Amanda is pissed, but we have to take your word for it. This is a form of authorial intrusion, which is best avoided as it can pop us out of the story. Justify the things that matter from the perspective of a character and you won’t have to worry so much about showing versus telling.”

  2. I love this post. It’s certainly got me thinking, and wanting to go back through some of my more recent writing to see where I’ve done both. I also love that you showed examples of what you’re talking about — this was really helpful for me to process what you’re saying better.

  3. dbstevens–

    I’m glad it’s a help. I am still learning too and always appreciate some well intentioned advice that will help improve my writing and in turn increase the enjoyment of any readers!

  4. Excellent advice!
    I like to try a minimalistic approach to a lot of my writing, describing aspects in enough detail to carry it across and focus more on the things I want readers to be drawn to but never overloading information.
    Or that’s at least what I TRY to do, end result is debatable! 😀
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Your advice helps me Andy. The examples are great.

    I love posts like this! Thanks much!

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