This Business of Writing

“Show, Don’t Tell.” Bologna or Beef?

In General Information, The Craft of Writing on March 11, 2010 at 10:15 pm

by C. Patrick Schulze

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Of all the maxims found within the craft of writing, “Show, don’ tell,” is foremost in the mind of almost every writing instructor and student of the craft. Wikipedia explains this as follows: “Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description.”

Proponents of this technique say the concept is simple, as is its purpose. When you Tell, your audience has no option but to see what you show them. When you Show, their imagination is free to visualize whatever they wish, thus making your story more personal to them. With Tell, they view your picture, whereas with Show they paint their own.

They say the key to this fundamental adage is the author’s objectivity or detachment from his writing. Can he paint with broad strokes and leave his words open to interpretation or must he interpret the details with a tiny brush?

These days, most are followers of this maxim and Show is considered to have the greater effect. Proponents argue this is obvious and shown even by examples in real life. To exhibit what they mean, consider the raising of a child. As with the classic example of placing a hand on a hot stove, does the child believe you when you tell them not to touch it or when they burn their hand? Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Show is more powerful than Tell.

Now, for the other side of the story.

This truism is hogwash.

A writer should come out and tell their reader what’s what. In fact, the opponents opine, it’s the wordy writer who must dramatize.

This adage, they say, hinders the writer’s spontaneity and stifles his artistic choices. The writer is not an actor doing as he’s told. Rather, he’s a painter who uses his canvas of words to exhibit his conceptual interpretation of the subject matter.

Francine Prose says, “There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing.” In fact, she’s right. Some of the finest novels ever written employ the technique of telling. “War and Peace,” is a classic example.  Even “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which some think is among the greatest of novels of the Twentieth Century, is almost told in its entirety.

The detractors of this adage say it stems from Plato and has lost much of its punch by this time in history. It is an orthodoxy that should no longer be written in stone.

Remember Anton Chekhov’s line about the glint of light on the broken glass? The detractors of “Show, Don’t Tell” say Chekhov did not mean writers should adhere to a aged sage, but rather he meant writers should use sensory images.

They also say dramatization need not be accomplished by Tell, by rather the author’s choice of what and when to isolate or magnify his details.

So, what are your thoughts? Thumbs up or Thumbs down to “Show, Don’t Tell?” Let’s find out.


Either way, I hope you know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

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  1. I detest the “show, don’t tell”-commandment. Therefore, I boycott all shown-heavy fiction; and I tell shamelessly and religiously, no matter what’s the cost.

  2. I agree that too much showing can be exhausting. We´re storytellers, masters of the story and not the other way arround(although it feels exactly like that sometimes).

    I believe we have to pondor and find the balance between show and tell. As many other things in life, balance is the best solution =)

    Cheers!

  3. Too much SHOW can be exhausting. I like a little TELL scattered here and there as bridges between the SHOW episodes. And sometimes a nice concisely written little TELL piece just does the job. No need to elaborate. These are artistic choices each writer makes. Sometimes the rule pushes the writer around. The writer should feel free to push back.

  4. I’d love to see a rule of when to tell instead of show, but I think it’s an artistic point.

    Tears streamed down her cheeks, elated at seeing her long-lost friend.

    I told that she was elated, to make sure that the reader picked up the right emotion. But was it necessary? You got me!

    • Dear Bailish,

      Thanks for taking your time to read the article.

      As to your comment, the general rule for show vs tell is to use show for emotions, for feelings. In your example, you’d use action, dialogue, etc., to show this elation you’ve mentioned. By saying she was elated to see her friend, you’ve told.
      However, you mentioned tears, which is show, but this by itself might not indicate elation. Tears might, for example, indicate sadness. To show more of this scene, maybe you’d have her laugh through her tears, toss in a hug or two and add some appropriate dialogue.

      I’ll work up an article on show vs tell for one day next week. Stay tuned and thanks for commenting.

      Patrick

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