Everyone is crazy anxious over “show don’t tell,” and I even teach a class on the topic. Or do I? Sort of. Because the issue is greatly misunderstood. What does “show don’t tell” really mean? And how important is it?
The show don’t tell class is popular because at some time or other most new writers have been told to “show don’t tell.” Yet very few scribes (even those just starting out) actually break that dictum in their writing—or very rarely at least.
Worse than telling without showing is its opposite, showing without telling.
We authors do tell unless we’ve been so inhibited by the instruction not to tell that we present some very dry reading for our would-be audience.
Yes, we want to show—but we also want to tell.
He was sweating bullets. (SHOWING) His stomach churned. (TELLING) A burst of red-hot rage shot through his guts and spiraled from there to every organ and cell of his body. (TELLING)
Why do I say “he was sweating bullets” is showing? Because that sweat can be seen by any observer.
Why do I say “His stomach churned. A burst of red-hot rage shot through his guts and spiraled from there to every organ and cell of his body” is telling? Because those statements adhere to the character’s point of view and can’t be seen.
This is a completely legitimate—and welcome—form of telling—as are many other forms of point of view statements, including direct quoting of character thoughts. (Though I don’t really like direct quoting of character thoughts much since—well, try to quote your own thoughts exactly. Thoughts are tinged with the intangible and unquotable.)
However, what I see in class when students are very conscious of trying not to tell is this:
He was sweating bullets. Without warning, he punched the commandant in the head.
So we miss his stomach churning and the red-hot rage. Red-hot rage is nice to tell about, however, because it’s vivid and active and explains why he punched the commandant. Our writing is supposed to explain and not withhold—at least for the most part. (Secrets can be kept until later.)
Luckily, most students don’t go to the extreme of keeping all the telling hush hush. They write a little more instinctively than that. Yet I do see a lot of tamped down writing in my “show, don’t tell” class. But I urge you, tell, tell, tell.
Of course, yes, sometimes we have too much telling without showing. We need the accompanying showing.
Myrtle’s apartment was incredible. He felt she had expressed her inner core and he was glad to have been shown what was inside her. He seated himself on the couch.
I mean, come on, in what way was the apartment “incredible”? What did he decide about her inner core because of this incredibleness? Why was he glad to have seen this? What kind of couch was this at least? Fabric? Leather? What color leather? What pattern fabric and how did it match the rest of the décor? This is where we need a lot of showing.
I really wish no one had ever pushed the phrase “show don’t tell” on authors. I don’t think it has done very much good to the storyteller. The point can be made in other ways. As the practice stands, the advice has simply made writers a bit paranoid about telling—and that’s unhelpful. The finest authors of any age have told buckets of juicy character secrets and nuances of feeling that resonate long after the book has been returned to the shelf.
Send a comment here if you want to inquire about an edit, or take a class with me at Writer’s Digest University. I’m always teaching Writing the Mystery, and the third edition of my award winning instructional of that name can be bought at Amazon. Or download The Naked Writer at Amazon. I have fiction available for download on Smashwords and at Amazon as well, including a YA for girls (The Heroine’s Journey) and an upper middle grade fantasy with a boy protagonist (Strings). These two novels are available in paperback. Or for some post-apocalyptic fun—Question Woman and Howling Sky is in ebook and paperback and audio formats.