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R. L. Copple's Blog

Show, Don’t Tell?

The common writing “rule,” show, don’t tell, has taken a beating in recent times. When I started writing fiction in 2006, it wasn’t long before I heard about the suggested mode of writing. Usually from a critiquer who pointed out I was in telling mode here or there.

But I’ve noticed there has been a growing backlash to this mode of writing. Why is it being rejected as a valid guideline for new writers to write fiction? I think for the following reasons:

  1. Extreme usage in critique groups. One such person attempted to tell me that one should have no telling in fiction, everything had to be shown. So he would point out any telling, and appeared to refuse to offer any other constructive feedback until I “fixed” this one issue. If a person encounters too many like that, it is easy to overreact to the opposite extreme and throw the baby out with the bathwater.
  2. Show, don’t tell is the answer to every issue. Related to the above, some critiquers go overboard to using show, don’t tell for the solution to any number of unrelated writing problems. Writers hearing “You’re not showing here, just telling,” when addressing a character’s dialog only shows they don’t know what they are talking about, using the rule as a crutch because they don’t know what else to say. Enough of those, and a writer is tempted to ditch the rule as lame simply because they encounter people who are using it lamely.
  3. Hate any perceived rules. Some folk are just anti-rule. Any perceived guideline that says one should do X, Y, or Z in writing automatically gets push back. “I’ll show them” attitude prevails. Especially true if the person gets someone saying you always have to do it this way if you want to keep a reader’s attention.
  4. Lazy writers not looking to improve. Some writers don’t care. They just want to write a story and have everyone praise them. They aren’t looking for critiques. They don’t want to know how to improve their writing. They feel what comes natural to them is correct for them, and any effort to write differently is artificial. So they don’t gain the writing skills through practice, including knowing when and how to show instead of tell.

If you’ve fallen into one of these reactions to the show, don’t tell rule, maybe it is time to take a step back and gain a balanced perspective. The last group may find this the hardest to do, so let’s look first at why one needs to show in fiction, instead of tell.

Non-fiction conveys information; fiction conveys an experience. Few pick up a work of fiction hoping to learn how to grow a garden or how to change the starter in a car. Not that one can’t learn how to do those things from a work of fiction, but that’s not the reason most buy a fictional story. They buy a fictional story to be entertained. To be immersed into another person’s world and experiences. To see the world from a different set of eyes.

The showing mode of writing is not an efficient means to convey information. This is why non-fiction doesn’t use much, if any, showing. Even the stories told in a non-fiction book are told in telling mode, because the point is to illustrate a truth, not have the reader experience another person’s life. For instance, you’ll note the stories in the Bible are primarily told not shown.

However, to have a reader sink into another person’s world, to see from their eyes, showing becomes critical. Telling can’t effectively do that. To accomplish its goal, fiction has to be primarily showing, using telling when needed. In short, to experience another person’s world, you have to convey to the reader what they are experiencing, not simply what happens to them.

A quick example. This would be telling: “Paul saw the dagger as it sank into him.” It conveys the information of what happened to Paul efficiently. It does not convey what Paul experienced.

Showing would be more like this: “Paul saw the sun glint off a blade flashing his direction. He jerked back, but a pain echoed through his nerves, his skin numbed, and warmth flowed down his side, soaking his clothing. His knees buckled as darkness swept over him.”

The showing doesn’t efficiently convey what happened, but it does efficiently tell you what Paul experienced, thus providing emotional impact. Emotional impact is the key to entertaining fiction. Without showing, there would be little emotion conveyed, and would not be as entertaining as it could be. If a person ditches showing for one of the above reasons, then you need to be honest with yourself. You are writing fiction as if it were non-fiction.

Some will tell me, “But this writer did it effectively.” Usually they are pointing to a “classic” written years ago. An omniscient narrator used to be the standard story telling mode, which involved more telling. In that day, an author didn’t have to compete with more emotionally engaging stories, so writing in telling mode could still stand out, not to mention the number of published books back then per year was smaller, so easier for a well-told story to stand out.

This is not true today. You are competing with story-tellers who know how to engage their reader’s emotions through effective showing. This is why you’ll hear if Tolkien were submitting his Lord of the Rings book today, it is unlikely he’d gain a following. By today’s standards it has a lot of problems. But you’ll notice even in that work, Tolkien does show, even if it is not as much as most authors do today.

So, how does one know when to tell and when to show in fiction? I have the following general guidelines I use once I’ve finished my first draft and am ready to edit.

How critical is the phrase, sentence, paragraph in the movement of the story and/or character arc? The more important to these goals, the more important it is to show instead of tell.

For instance, let’s say we need to get Jane to answer the telephone. The call itself moves the story forward. The ensuing conversation provides a clue to the mystery, but the fact she answers the phone isn’t important other than the fact she does it. It isn’t something the reader needs to experience for the story to move forward.

Indeed, to show that would likely bore the reader if they read, “A ringing echoed through Jane’s head. The phone! It must be him. Her shoes snapped against the wooden floor, creaking the planks under her weight so much she wondered if she would fall through them. She wrapped her fingers around the smooth, black dial phone. A cold plastic greeted her hands. The ringing ceased as she lifted the receiver, lighter than she expected. ‘Hello’?”

Unless you are building tension for a big moment/reveal, you’re building emotional investment for nothing. People don’t notice that level of detail unless it is new or they sense a moment of importance. You’re convincing the reader something important is about to happen, and when it doesn’t, they’ll tend to wonder why the emotional investment was made. If you simply need to tell the reader that she answered the phone, it would be more efficient to say, “The phone rang. ‘Hello’?”

To maintain the pacing of your story. Related to the last point, sometimes you need to move your characters from point A to B, but nothing happens during that time which moves the story forward. So to show all the detail of that trip would bore the reader. Reducing the trip down to a handful of descriptive words and a telling summary will keep the pacing of the novel from bogging down into drudgery.

Transitional paragraphs. Often you have a transitional paragraph between scenes that requires moving through a period of time to the next scene were story-moving dialog/action will take place. Like the last reason, it would be pretty boring to show someone on watch all night when nothing happens of significance. A simple, “George struggled to fight off sleep until the first rays of dawn arrived and Henry arrived to relieve him,” gets the reader quickly through an otherwise uneventful time frame with little loss of interest.

Dialog. It is rare that you hear someone talking in showing mode. When is the last time you heard someone describe their reaction to a joke like this: “My gut tightened. I squeezed my lips tight in hopes of blocking the impending spray of coffee from my mouth. But the pressure grew to the point of shoving my lips apart. Hot liquid careened into his face.” No, instead you’re more likely to hear, “I laughed so hard I spewed coffee all over him.”

Dialog is predominately telling. Leave the showing for the narration if you don’t want unnatural dialog littering your story. Included in this is a character telling a story to another. Unless the story goes into a full flashback, in-story mode, a story told by a character in the story would tend to be more telling than showing, unless they were attempting to dramatize it.

Non-fiction. If you are writing non-fiction, one naturally uses telling mode to communicate information effectively. But there are times in fiction where a writer may want to convey some information. Back story is often given in more telling mode, often by a character. Dishing out back story needs to be in short bursts, on a need-to-know basis. You don’t want long paragraphs of back story, so you don’t want to show it unless there is a good reason to do so. When you need to convey information, a telling mode gets the job done much quicker.

Creating emotional distance. There are times a writer may need to create emotional distance. Especially if it is something that the point of view character is not that emotionally invested in or you want to minimize the impact on the reader. For instance, if you have a rape scene, to minimize any emotional reactions from readers who have gone through it, it could be told instead of shown.

One could come up with other instances of using telling instead of showing, but if you want your scenes to have emotional impact, in-the-story feel, you need to ensure important story-moving segments are shown instead of merely told. The uniqueness of reading a story is the immersion into another’s experience, another’s thoughts, another’s worldview. Movies can’t easily accomplish this. If you fail to take advantage of this strength in your stories for one of the reasons listed at the beginning, you’ll shortchange the reader, and not give them a reason to read the next book, much less finish the one in their hands.

Do you think some of the negative attitudes toward show, don’t tell are a valid reaction or an over-reaction?

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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2 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell?

  1. Terri Main says:

    I think the problem is when a good idea becomes a “rule.” It gains a type of exclusivity and absoluteness that simply doesn’t exist in the arts.

    I think we need to understand that there is a place for showing and a place for telling. The art lies in determining which one dominates and at what time. In a way every sentence involves both. If I say “The knife plunged into his chest. The blood oozed out as his eyes went blank.” I am showing what happened, but I am also telling as well. It’s just that the result of that type of telling is a more vivid and descriptive type than writing, “He was stabbed in the chest and bled out.” However, that very line might be the most appropriate if it is part of dialogue where the speaker is being asked for details of a crime and he just wants to get rid of the questioner as quickly as possible. Even in narration, it might be appropriate if the idea is to diminish importance of such a thing. For instance, if it is a first person POV from a war weary soldier who has seen so much death that it doesn’t even matter anymore.

    It’s like telling a painter, to always prepare a canvas a certain way. However, one painter might prepare the canvas a different way because s/he is making a statement with that preparation.

    The important thing is not following a rule/guideline/style suggestion or not. The important thing is having a reason for either following it or breaking it. If you can’t explain why you showed or told, then you need to rethink what you wrote.

  2. R. L. Copple says:

    I think the problem is when a good idea becomes a “rule.” It gains a type of exclusivity and absoluteness that simply doesn’t exist in the arts.

    I think that falls into reason #3. People who tend to take such absolutist views to writing “rules” (note the quote here and in the article) tend to be either those who rebel simply because they perceive it as an absolute rule, or become those critiquers as in reason #1 who attempt to fit every book into that straightjacket. As we both showed, it isn’t that cut and dried. The short answer to when you show and when you tell is, “It depends.”

    The important thing is not following a rule/guideline/style suggestion or not. The important thing is having a reason for either following it or breaking it.

    True, that. The point of my article is that there are two extremes here that are either in “follow it legalistically, because this is a writing rule,” to “there are no rules, it isn’t important, do what you want, no need to learn how to write more effectively.” As you point out, to know when to “break” a rule, you have to know how to apply it properly. Neither camp does, and can’t seem to achieve a balanced view and respect for it as both important, but not a straightjacket.

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