If I read another post on ‘show, don’t tell,’ I’m going to puke … oh, wait

blah blah

“This is my great grandpa. He lives in a wooden box under the ground. He doesnt talk much and smells pretty bad too – but he’s really fun to play with in the sand box.”

Over the past few weeks I’ve been researching “show, don’t tell” by reading and collecting blog posts on the subject.  (It’s the masochist in me.)   The thing is, everybody seems to know what it is and are more than willing to pontificate on the subject, yet not everyone agrees on exactly what it means or how best to do it.

So, what’s a confused writer supposed to do?

First, go to Wikipedia, because that’s where I found the best traditional definition:

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.  


Iconogrial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bottom line, it’s a technique, not the Holy Grail of Writing. No one should build a monument to it or nominate it for sainthood. Or give it more weight that it deserves.

Understand it? Yes. Definitely.

Use it? Yes.

Or not.

Yeah, yeah. But, exactly, when do you show and when do you tell?

Do old men wear
wear boxers or briefs?


Here’s a summary of some of the more salient points I came across in my research:

1.  The warning against telling can be bad advice. Telling has its place. To quote from Wikipedia again:

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. From  Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose (2006)

2.  As Lisa Cron explains in Wired for Story (2012) [read this book], “show, don’t tell” may be one of the most misunderstood writing maxims around because it’s often taken literally

 . . . as if “show” inherently means visually, from the outside in, as if you were watching a film. So when a writers hears, “Don’t tell me that John is sad, show me,” she spends hours writing how “John’s tears fell like a torrential rainstorm, flooding the basement in a glittering release of everything he’d held in for a so very long, knocking out the power and nearly drowning the cat.” No, no, no! We don’t want to see John cry (the effect); we what to see what made him cry (the cause).

4. How “show, don’t tell” is used depends upon voice, style, genre, pacing, point of view, mood, purpose, emphasis, etc. Think of “show, don’t tell” as a continuum, not  “either/or”.

6. Show is a way to slow the story down and give weight to a certain scene or incident or object – but it damn well better be there for a reason, not just to show off. Give me a payoff, or get rid of it – or I’ll haunt you.

7. In your first draft, no one cares if you’re showing or telling and neither should you. (I found this very liberating.)That’s what the second, third, fourth drafts are for.

Here’s a list of the blogs I reviewed so you can do your own research. Read the comments, too. They can be just as interesting.






http://www.thebeginningwriter.com/2012/03/explaining-show-dont-tell.html  This one also links to other posts on the subject, which I haven’t included here. Except for this one, which includes a simple example of slow don’t tell that actually makes sense:


http://www.yavengers.com/ Thor’s Thoughts: Show vs. Tell. Jul 29, 2013





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