When ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is Really Bad Advice

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard “Show, Don’t Tell’ a million times. It’s one of those maxims you can’t escape. But I’m going to stick my neck out and declare…

I think that advice has led to a lot of really terrible writing.

Before you come at me with your sharpest pitchfork, let me explain my madness. I do believe, in many ways, it is good and useful and wise to ‘show’ things. There is a time and place for the camera pan, the action shot, the external focus. But a novel is not a screenplay. A movie is a string of external cues–visuals and sound–that tells a story. The viewer relies on these cues to make sense of the plot and all its underpinnings–the internal, intangibles such as emotion and theme.

The novel is an entirely different medium. A novel conjures a singular experience, not just through external description (what a camera can capture), but also by internal perception (the heart and soul an ordinary telephoto zoom can’t record). In a novel, there’s a lens that trumps all.

The human lens.

The fictive stream of consciousness. The thingamathink that pulls us under the skin of a character. The internal processor that that recalls events and interprets every moment of action in the context of a character’s deepest hopes, dreams, memories and fears.

Yet...motivated by well-intentioned advice, so many writers neglect this lens and start out writing novels like screenplays. They try to live by ‘show’ alone–moving characters here and there on a stage, describing everything in objective, surface-level terms the way a wide-angle camera shot would. This cheats the reader and sentences them to a parade of colorless, cliched gestures and descriptions.

John’s eyes widened in anxiety. Mary’s heart hammered. Glen’s jaw clenched. Raul’s brow quirked. Anna’s lips curled in a smirk. Neville clenched his fists at his sides. Snakes slithered in Jonah’s stomach.

Ugh. These gestures and reactions are all generic. They illuminate nothing about character, personality, conflict or plot. As Francine Prose so aptly writes in Reading Like a Writer, “they are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states.”

Meaningless shorthand. Yes. But darn it, they show and don’t tell. And that’s the rule, right?

WRONG. WRONG. WRONG.

I am nothing more than an puny, unpublished, unknown Writer/Librarian/Beatle-Maniac, but I will not recant. I will not! Because writing fiction is a form of storyTELLING. I agree with Joshua Henkin when he calls ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ the ‘great lie of writing workshops.‘ I say go ahead and slip under that murderer’s/ballerina’s/magician’s/vampire’s skin, tap into that stream of consciousness and TELL that story, infusing every moment that matters with personality and voice.

And if you still aren’t ready to drop your pitchfork, please look at these ‘show vs. tell’ examples before you skewer me:

Showing only (Excerpt altered. All telling parts omitted/edited):

“We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras.
Peeta extends his hand. I look at him. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. I take his hand, holding on tightly.

Showing with Physical Gestures: (Excerpt altered. Telling parts omitted/edited and replaced with physical gestures/reaction):

My stomach twists into knots. We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras. When Peeta extends his hand, my eyes widen. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says, his jaw relaxing. I take his hand, holding on tightly. A shiver of dread runs down my spine.”

Showing and Telling (Excerpt as published, unaltered):

I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.

So we just stand there silently, watching our grimy little station rise up around us. Through the window, I can see the platform’s thick with cameras. Everyone will be watching our homecoming.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me. I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.”

Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES

I think writers need to so show and tell. Still disagree? Did I miss something? Have I forgotten an important point? I’ve braced for impact, so fire away!

About Jenny Martin

Librarian, Writer, Beatlemaniac
Posted in Writing Tagged , , , , ,

23 Responses to When ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is Really Bad Advice

  1. THREE THOUSAND TIMES YES. My skin CRAWLS every time I hear that snotty little maxim. I want to stand up on the table and say “Look, people, it’s storyTELLING, not storySHOWING, so when I TELL you that Hunky Hotpants and Tina Troutpout are madly in love, it is because I cannot think of anything more excruciatingly banal than actually trotting them out onstage to SHOW you that. Shut up, take my word for it, and let me get you to the parts of the story that are actually WORTH showing. Pay attention, now – this is the part where the Hormone of Babylon starts assimilating cheerleaders.”

    I love that you have a tag for generic gestures, by the way. Next time you put on your righteous rageface, do a post on that one!

    • jmartinlibrary says:

      Sigh. I could not agree more. There is a time to tell and a time to show. And if you’re going to use a gesture, don’t use a cliche. Make it personal and specific, make it reflect the unique person your character is. I love what Francine Prose has to say on that: “Properly used gestures – plausible, in no way stagy or extreme, yet unique and specific – are like windows opening to let us see a person’s soul, his or her secret desires, fears or obsessions, the precise relations between that person and the self, between the self and the world, as well as the complicated emotional, social and historical male- female choreography that is instantly comprehensible…”

      • Kate Cornell says:

        Before things go too far, I think there is a tendency for people to forget the meanings of those advising sayings. Show, don’t tell, is a suggestion of immersion. You don’t look through a camera when you’re reading a novel. The experience should be more involved because the reader is activating their brain in ways that visual stimulation doesn’t.

        The phrase actually means what you’re saying in the post, not the idea of writing a script. “Show”, in this case, meaning create an experience.

        Other bad advice:
        Don’t use adverbs. Sometimes you just need an adverb, she typed lazily.

        Don’t use “to be” verbs. What? That has to happen. It’s unavoidable.

        Write drunk, edit sober.

        Okay, that last one’s pretty straightforward and accurate.

      • jmartinlibrary says:

        I agree that’s what ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is *supposed* to mean, yet somewhere along the way, people have misinterpreted it/abused it, spawning a lot of dreadful pages in the process.

        Thus, I decided to poke the hornet’s nest.

      • Rosemary says:

        I think–And this goes to Kate’s point–is that it’s all a matter of balance. We have these “rules” for writers because as you’re developing your skill and your voice, you do have to learn not to rely on adverbs and to watch out for passive sentence structure. But as you develop as a writer, you (hopefully) develop an “ear” for when to show, when to tell, and when an adverb or was word is the best for the sentence.

  2. The thing that people forget is that a novel is a story told through a narrator. Even third person narration has a filter. You don’t have to confine yourself to the physical/tangible, because your narrator/POV character can INTERPRET those physical things through the lens of their voice/experience/mood.

    The difference is good telling is telling through your narrator. Bad telling is telling through the author. And it’s hard for new writers to know the difference, so we say “show don’t tell.”

    • jmartinlibrary says:

      YES. You are so right. Good telling vs. telling. And I think a lot of ‘bad’ telling is simply ‘author-ese’–generic narration or seemingly ‘fancy’ words. I know you know my fave Elmore Leonard Quote:
      “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

  3. KatieO says:

    I agree with your post…but…for newbie writers, the show vs. tell idea can be eye-opening. A “tell” story tends to be passive and lacking in that the characters seem to observe the moment rather than experience the moment.

    I do agree that the best storytelling is a blend of show and tell. Great post and great reminder to us all!

    • jmartinlibrary says:

      Definitely, Katie. I agree! When it comes down to it, I think I agree w/ “show, don’t tell” in its original meaning. I just think it has been often misinterpreted in a way that’s spawned some bad writing, if that makes sense?

      Thanks for clarifying a fine point!

  4. Agreed! You practice showing early in your writing career. Then you write your book the way it needs to be written. 🙂

  5. I’ve been an avid fan of “show don’t tell” since I started tutoring years ago — but I think our difference of opinion is just a difference in definition. That piece you posted from The Hunger Games is, to me, all showing. It’s just also showing us the internal monologue.
    Telling, in my opinion, is when you come in and explain everyone’s emotions, or their reasons, or those things which are almost always oversimplifications anyway.

    It’s the difference, I think, between a more left-brain (quantitative) and right-brain (qualitative) reaction. Telling is the product of our left brains — it takes in the information and packages it into a concise meaning. Showing is the product of the right brain — pulling images and sensations and emotions out of the landscape. If you skip straight to telling in your story, you rob the reader of their own interactive process between the two hemispheres — you rob them of any engagement with their right brains. You don’t even provide them with the raw data; you just process it and tell them what it means.

    Interestingly, this left/right hemisphere interaction is the scientific cornerstone of creativity. By providing them with the data — both sensory and literal, like the thoughts of characters — you allow your readers to engage more fully and creatively with your work. Anything else robs them of autonomy in their thought life, robs them of the opportunity to discover themselves and their own meaning in your work; you’ve already given them yours.

    Sure, that gives rise to any number of ‘shorthands’ that pop up everywhere in amateur writing, and those are so thoroughly overused that they are barely an improvement. But those aren’t the answer to “show don’t tell” — those are stepping stones that help writers transition from quantifying the information for their readers to offering their readers an experience and letting them engage with it.

    • Jenny Martin says:

      Willow, it sounds like we’re both of the same mind, and it’s just semantic. We’re just defining ‘showing’ differently. For the post, I’m referring to some bad “Show, Don’t Tell” advice I’ve seen. I’ve seen some ‘gurus’ tell other novice writers to pile on more external physical movement (eyes widening, fists clenching, etc.) as ‘showing,’ and that’s what I’m arguing against. For me, the bottom line is that I enjoy fiction in which the writer interprets and/or channels a singular experience instead of news reporting a list of events. Great comment, thanks for clarifying a finer point.

    • Brittany says:

      Thank you for pointing this out. I agree completely.

  6. Anyanka14 says:

    A lot of things, as people have pointed out, are kind of up to your own interpretation of showing and telling. Like the narration of HP is only very insightful to Harry’s emotions and stream of consciousness because even though it’s a third person narrative, it’s still through Harry’s lens, and he is not very intuitive about other people’s thoughts or feelings. He notices what they’re doing and that’s pretty much it. You can see this in the way that he doesn’t seem to understand why Cho behaves the way she does, or why Hermione gets angry/annoyed/jealous when Ron and Lavender get together (or anything about any of the girls in the story at all). He’s sort of oblivious.

    But then you have things like Twilight, where Bella complains all the time about how clumsy and inept she is, but there’s almost no indication of that. Like, she… falls down sometimes? And trips? So does every normal person. There’s no evidence shown that she is more prone to doing those things than anyone else. And then there’s just straight contradictions – she seems to think she’s really plain looking but every single person ever is in love with her.

    So to me, one is an example of a purposeful way of writing the story, while the other is just bad writing.

  7. Aiculik says:

    Yes! It’s good to know there are people who realize it… from reactions of people in random writing groups I was/am a part of, I started to think I’m a sole lunatic who doesn’t agree with show don’t tell.

    I’m so sick and tired of what I call ‘twitchy characters’ that can’t say one sentence between curling hair around their finger, smirking, grinning, clenching their jaws and fists, pinching their nose, shuffling their feet and all that kind of nonsense.

    Worse than that are only ‘drama queens’ who will kick off a chair, slam their fist into the wall and storm away a room, banging the door behind them, every time they’re angry (and have similar overreactions for other emotions, though anger is most abused). And they never have to face consequences. Their boss doesn’t fire them for that show, thier friends don’t start to avoid them as dangerous neurotics…

    What’s worse, all these stories that try to show as much as possible, leaving telling ony for ‘boring parts’ like transition, all feel the same. I’d say they ‘sound’ the same, except that’s the problem – they don’t have any voice. You can’t have voice without a narrator telling you something. All you can have is a bland pantomime trying to mimic the story author sees in their mind. In 90% of cases, it doesn’t work.

    • jdkensington says:

      Love your comment to this excellent article, Aiculik! You have a great sense of humor, so if writing like yours is reflective of a person sees the flaws in that old rule, count me among your “lunatic” fringe.

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  9. somalion says:

    Wow, I am overwhelmed and delighted by this read. As a first time writer, it is so very difficult to sift through some of the awful advice out there, and the Show vs Tell mantra can be frustrating. I cannot agree with this wonderful post enough. Thank you, I will make certain to share it with anyone who asks.

    What irritates me most is when they use one poxy example which is fine as standalone prose, not a lengthy piece of work.

  10. Jason W Baccaro says:

    This is a beautiful post! I’m an aspiring writer, but sometimes I get bogged down by the common advice of so many people saying “Show!” It makes me feel like EVERYTHING I write is wrong, no matter how many times I revise, or think I’m showing and I become obsessive and think I’m doing nothing but telling. Am I? Yes, there was a time when I looked back at my work and cringed. I’d revise and revise. Then I’d look back at my revision from say, a year or two prior, and would be like “Sweet!” Obviously I’d gotten better. Then I’d start obsessing again when people keep saying “show! show! show!” all over the internet. What if I’m showing? I have to step away, calm down, and just feel out my story, my writing, and go with it.

    The example of showing and telling at the end of your post, by Suzanne Collins, I think is wonderful, MUCH better than the previous two with just the “showing,” avoiding all forms of telling. There is something about telling that is therapeutic for me. I think the showing will come out naturally when one stops obsessing…like me. 🙂

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  12. jdkensington says:

    Thank you so much for this piece, Jenny Martin! I am in the middle of having commited to the National Novel Writing Month challenge and that worn-out, over-extended maxim kept running through my mind. It’s kind of like a religious precept. If you keep hearing a phrase over and over, especially by those in authority, you stop all questioning of it’s usage. So, you helped me go onward today and not stop dead in my tracks right in the middle of a 50,000 word goal to be achieved in 8 more days! (Yikes!) So thank you, thank you, thank you for the gift of confirmation of what my intuition keeps telling me 🙂 .

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