“Show, don’t tell” is the first creative writing advice most people receive. On the surface, it seems sensible. For someone putting pen to paper for the very first time, the instinct is to tell — “First this happened, then this other thing, and finally a third thing happened. The end.”
In that case, “show, don’t tell,” can be a good reminder to slow down, take a breath, smell the flowers — and let the reader know about their scent.
But as gospel writing advice, it sucks. To tell a good story, you have to show and tell. The key is to know when you should use sensory, active language (showing) and when a shortcut could keep your story moving (telling).
“Showing” language creates compelling, evocative scenes that will stick out in the readers’ memories. It’s active and exciting and will create dramatic tension.
But it also takes up a lot of real estate. Showing is wordy, and if you write your entire story that way, your manuscript might end up an unwieldy 145,000 words instead of a tight 85,000. You also risk losing readers’ attention — scenes that should pack a punch will get lost in the jumble.
That’s where “telling” can be your friend. Push your story along by dropping the unimportant scenes, organically inserting a summary where it’s necessary for reader comprehension. It can also be a workaround to portraying events where your narrator or main character wasn’t present.
Telling allows you to cover a lot of ground clearly and concisely, and because of that, it can be a great way to drive a point home. Remember, it doesn’t have to be an excessive info-dump. Telling language should still be imbued with the unique voice of your story.
Some authors “tell” more than others. It’s fundamentally about finding the right balance to move your story forward, always thinking about why you are showing or telling in a particular circumstance.
All that being said, the real vendetta I have with “show, don’t tell” is not with writers, but with critiquers and other feedback givers.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard the blanket statement “show, don’t tell” given as if it were sacred and inarguable feedback.
It drives me bananas. It’s both lazy and completely unhelpful.
There are often incidents when writers tell when they really should show. Instead of spitting out a generic idiom, a good critique partner or beta reader will give specific advice. “I notice you mention X but I feel like it got brushed over. I think you could expand the scene more,” or, “Y seems important but it could be more exciting. Could you add some action?”
This will be so much more useful to a writer than “show, don’t tell,” which always makes me think the feedback-giver wasn’t paying close attention to the story.
Please, hear my cry: excise “show, don’t tell” from your writing vocabulary.