Saturday, August 4, 2012

Show, Don't Tell--Or Not: Saturday Links

As a writer and an editor, I continually puzzle over the well-worn maxim "Show, don't tell." Where did the rule come from? What does it mean, exactly? And is it actually a good piece of advice for authors to follow? I read a couple posts recently on the topic--which led me to Google it and find some more information. Here are some of the detractors of the "Show, don't tell" rule:

Writer's Digest features a piece where thriller writer Lee Child's debunks the biggest writing myths:
Picture this: In a novel, a character wakes up and looks at himself in the mirror, noting his scars and other physical traits for the reader.  
“It is completely and utterly divorced from real life,” Child said.  
So why do writers do this? Child said it’s because they’ve been beaten down by the rule of Show, Don’t Tell. “They manufacture this entirely artificial thing.”
“We’re not story showers,” Child said. “We’re story tellers.”  
Child said there’s nothing wrong with simply saying the character was 6 feet tall, with scars.... (read more)
Shawn Lamb gives a feet on the ground example of when she "tells" instead of "showing" in her YA series Allon.

There. The entrance Tristine anticipated. Twenty-year-old Ellan the brown-haired, blue-eye beauty wearing her new red and gold gown like a strutting peacock, smiling like she owned the world. Well, at least Ellis.

This lays the foundation by suggesting a jealousy rivalry between the sisters that carries on with action and verbal exchanges throughout the story. Yes, I know, some will say Show Don’t Tell concerning the paragraph, to which I reply Pshaw!  I established the scene from Tristine’s POV, so it is natural to include the way she views Ellan’s entrance. I’m not suddenly going to switch to Ellan’s mannerisms for show. However, Ellan's subsequent actions, reactions and speech once she is involved in the scene supports Tristine’s assessment.... (read more)
And finally, with the help of Google, I came across this older blog post on The Recalcitrant Scrivener which very eloquently laid out what's right and what's wrong with this maxim. Essentially, this writer says that all writing is a form of telling.
Contrary to this approach I would cite Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961. Here the author engages in a sustained critique of the “show, don’t tell” maxim. One of Booth’s main accomplishments is to demonstrate that there are a nearly infinite number of gradations between absolute telling and absolute showing, and that these can be used by fiction writers in a variety of ways. It’s worth noting that this is a work of criticism, not an off-the-shelf “how to” book.
My intention is to take Booth’s argument further. My claim is that the partisans of “show, don’t tell” suffer from a very specific conceptual confusion. The truth is that in an absolute, literal sense, narrative writing can only tell. 
The bullets whizzed by my ear. My guts fell to the floor. 
The shots narrowly missed Pearson. He felt his nerves tighten. 
Contrary to what certain people would tell you, both these sentences are forms of telling. The first is clearly more vivid, but it is nevertheless written as first-person narration, a manner of telling. If I were sitting next to you in a bar and said “The bullets whizzed by my ear…” I would be telling you something. I would have shown you nothing.... (read more)


  1. Bravo for the boldness of these writers to rebel and write what best informs the reader of points which help to make the story.

    That said, as I'm sure all are aware, there are many times where showing is better writing. I say, write what makes the story better in any particular paragraph.

    I also think POV changes should be done as necessary to make the story better. And discussion of weather, etc.

    Let me add that I am a newbie in the field, but I feel really irritated when rules seem to be for no good reason. :)

    1. Yes, POV is another one of those "rules" that has run amok. I also think POV changes are fine (if they work).

    2. I referred to the 'show dont tell' rule in a review of my latest fiction read shown on the 'Romances of the Cross' site. Mainly because even though the book was generally alright I has some issues with the writing style.

      Then again, I am not an author, so I am not familiar with the challenges and difficulties they have to overcome, so perhaps should not be too critical.

    3. I think it can be a valid criticism sometimes. You definitely get more rounded characters when you show things about them. But as the articles cited above say, telling has its merits too. :-)


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