If you, like me, have been writing since elementary school (whether it is for fun or for school assignments), you will probably have heard the cliché “Show, Don’t Tell” a lot. It is the one critique I have constantly heard, whether from teachers or from peers. It almost seems to be a decided fact, tried and true.
However, it’s not true. At the very least, it is an overdramatic statement. At the most, it can be highly detrimental to any blossoming writer by forcing them to focus on a problem that is nonexistent.
Today I want to discuss the issues with this cliché in writing and how it really should be thrown down the drain by any self-respecting writer or teacher.
In order to understand the issue with “Show Don’t Tell,” it is first important to understand what show and tell actually means in writing.
Telling is basic. It is conveying to the reader exactly what is happening in the story, without any of the fluff. Let’s take an example.
“She walked down the street.”
The grammar is basic in this sentence. She is the subject and walked is the verb. It is plain and to the point. It tells us that this character is walking down the street.
Now let’s look at the example if the same sentence was showing.
“She trotted along the hard brick pavement down the street, her small pink heals clipping against the boiling hot road.”
While the two sentences say just about the same thing, the second shows what is happening more than simply telling it.
The Disaster of Just Showing
Now that there is an understanding of what these two types of writing are, let’s look at the issues of just showing. “Show Don’t Tell” suggests, by is grammar, that you should never tell and always show. This is not true.
Pick up the best book you have ever read. The book that you thought was incredible. Odds are, you will probably find the author spends about 30% of the time showing and 70% of the time telling.
I am not saying that you should “Tell Don’t Show” but the opposite is just as ridiculous. Why would you waste your and your reader’s time by saying “she wore a full-length robe in a simple T-shape with wide, long sleeves, several layers of v-shaped collars, and a sash surrounding her waist with a tie in the back” when you could just say “she wore a kimono.”
If a writer adds too many descriptive adjectives, the story becomes bogged down with unnecessary showing when telling can be both clearer and more provocative. It also makes showing that much more potent when the author uses it at strategic points because the reader clearly sees that this description is of importance instead of being buried among other adjectives.
Show and Tell
This is my solution. Ignore the old cliché of “Show Don’t Tell.” Instead, “Show and Tell.” Understand where description and clarification on emotions and senses are important, and when they would simply bog down the story.
I confess, back in collage (mostly because I was constantly being told to show and not to tell) I filled my stories with completely absurd descriptions where a few leading words would have been so much more poignant.
I am not saying that showing is evil in itself; I am merely saying that all writing needs a balance. If everything is about characters, where is the plot? If everything is about descriptions, where are the emotions and action?
I think Joshua Henkin puts it best when he says, “…the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it’s so much easier to write ‘the big brown torn vinyl couch’ than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language.”
Stories should be told. If you were trying to show everything, you would make a movie, not a book.
Description can be beautiful, but keep it to a minimum or your book will turn into Les Miserables, a nearly 1,500 page book which easily could be told in a third of the length if it wasn’t bogged down with unnecessary description (saying that, I still love that particular book, but boy is it slow).
What is your view on “Show Don’t Tell?” Do you agree with me? Or do you think showing is more important than telling? Let me know and, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,