Friday, May 9, 2014

Show vs Tell in creative fiction

We've all been advised, many times, to "Show, don't tell." It's become a repeated mantra from members of critique groups—like a broken record. Many consider it one of the most important rules of fiction. New writers are continually advised to let the reader discover what they are saying by watching the action and listening to the dialogue instead of reading a descriptive narrative.

Well, brace yourselves for this writer’s opinion. It’s good advice, but it’s not a universal truth that transcends every other rule of writing. While it is true that showing instills life into your characters and scenes, it’s not necessary to “show” all the time. Some things need to be told rather than shown. Telling provides a shortcut. It can offer a better solution for moving the reader quickly from one dramatic scene to the next, keeping the pace accelerated and holding the readers' interest. If a writer uses showing all the time, their words can blur into monotony with the same rhythm and tone. Worse, the important parts, the dramatic parts, won’t stand out, and you will end up wearing your reader out unnecessarily.

In addition, by its very nature, showing requires more words. If you try to write a novel using only showing, it will end up being ridiculously long. In my opinion, telling is not the horrible taboo some writing instructors and critique group members claim it is. Contrary to the previous advice you’ve been given, there are many places in your novel where telling is actually more appropriate. Your objective as the writer is to find the proper balance between telling and showing. The next time you’re given the advice of “show, don’t tell” don’t blindly follow the suggestion without considering the purpose of the words in that portion of your work.

According to novelist Francine Prose: “. . . the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out . . .”

We’re going to leave it at that for today. Even though this post sheds some conflicting light on the “show vs. tell” advice you’ve been receiving, showing is still a very important part of your writing. This post was not intended to downplay that importance but rather to reduce it from a mantra to a suggestion to be used at your discretion. 

As always, please feel free to comment with your opinion.


  1. Thanks for this post. I agree with you. Telling is sometimes the way to go for certain parts of the story. =)

  2. All of us have a natural tendency to tell, so I can't imagine one writing with too much showing. I think the times to tell are rare, and I don't totally agree with your post. Personally, I can't see myself falling into a "too much showing" problem.

  3. Couldn't agree more! Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes the picture should be painted with a thousand words. I'm glad to read some writer's advice that confirms what I've thought all along. Thanks so much.

  4. Thank you, I just had a paragraph of telling the reader, why my character would laugh at a serious point in the book. I could show the reader, but it would take a major rewrite for just a little scene. It's not important to the plot, just explains her reaction at that point.

  5. Hmm, I generally agree with you, but I think it obscures a greater point. It's not just the "show not tell" rule that isn't sacrosanct. It's almost every rule out there. Rules about POV, the verb to be, passive, etc. In fact, many of the very best authors are the best exactly because they can break the rules effectively.

    Most of us can't do it as effectively as the great writers, however. I like to think of the writing rules as something that I follow unless I have a reason to do it differently. So i go through my writing and check for all the things I'm supposed to check for. Most of the time I edit accordingly, but not always. I should also note that if you get feedback from multiple people suggesting problems with an area where you are violating writing rules, it's probably a sign that you shouldn't be violating them or you need to do it more effectively.

    That said, I'm not sure I agree with the statement that showing all the time will sound monotone or fail to showcase dramatic scenes. Poor writing will do that, sure, whether you're showing or telling. But that's different from suggesting that "all show and no tell makes novel a monotone boy."

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  6. I rather like this post. For years I've been locked in the "telling is bad - don't ever do it" mindset, but this is giving me a fresh perspective. If it helps move the story along, perhaps telling isn't all that bad.

    I suppose the universal maxim of "anything in moderation" applies here. Occasionally employing a telling technique, if done with tact and skill, can certainly work.

    That being said, the majority of any literary work should definitely be "showing."

  7. Anytime someone mentions writing rules, I just think of Pirates of the Caribbean: "Them's more like guidelines than actual rules..."

  8. It's true: there are no absolutes in writing - mostly, if people would just relax and write, and write, and write, practice the craft, all this other stuff will fall to the wayside or perhaps I should say instincts and good practice will create the ability to do things second nature...oh, and read and read and read - that helps, too....knowing the rules does help, but it doesn't rules aren't up to interpretation, made to be broken, and there to question....

    Nice post!

  9. I tend to agree with Edward. All show and no tell doesn't necessarily make a monotone story. That's because the definition of Show vs. Tell is this:

    Showing is action-oriented. Telling is not. When you ask someone to show you how to do something, you expect them to perform the action while you watch. The same is true with writing - we expect the characters to perform actions while we 'watch.' So a story with plenty of action isn't going to sound monotone, unless it was poorly written.

    That said, I completely agree that telling is sometimes necessary, and is an ideal way to transition your reader from one point to the next.

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