Why 'Show vs. Tell' Advice is Holding You Back

Updated: Jan 6

Series Contents:

  1. Why 'Show vs. Tell' Advice is Holding You Back

  2. POV

  3. Components of Narrative Storytelling

  4. Narrative Type Part 1: Dialogue

  5. Narrative Type Part 2: Dramatic Action

  6. Narrative Type Part 3: Exposition

  7. Pacing & Rhythm

  8. Literary Devices

  9. Word Choice

We have all heard it a million times before...

Teachers and bloggers drone on and on about it. Editors like me plaster it over your manuscripts until you can no longer see the typed words on the page. And in your dreams, you run from serial killers wielding knives screaming, "Show me! Show me!" Then you wake in a puddle and drag your sorry ass to the bathroom to clean up before your spouse rolls over and sees what you've done!

But it's a load of sh*t, and here is why...

A) Writers have heard it so often it has become meaningless. Passing through one ear and out the other...or in your eyes and out your...butt?

B) "Teachers" (bloggers, fellow writers, infographics) are sometimes confused about what 'Show don't Tell' really means, and most of the time know only as much (if that) as the writers they are trying to help.

C) 'Show don't Tell' is a blanket term used to cover a multitude of writing issues.

D) It's a one-size-fits-all solution to the symptom of a problem but does not address the causes (note plural) of the problem.

If "Show don't Tell" is so off the mark, why are we still using it?

Simple. It's easy, it's direct, and it sounds good. I blame editors, to be honest. I have used the term so often, sometimes I just type it by accident, it's such an ingrained habit.

Show don't tell, show me, show show show (oops there I go again).

But I am also the first to admit that I write it on manuscripts for the convenience of it rather than the effectiveness of the advice—also because it is so common I do not need to explain myself repeatedly in each context. And for that, I am truly ashamed.

Show vs. Tell doesn't exist. (At least not in the way you've been told)

Would you like that...to never worry about whether you are Telling or Showing ever again?

I know I would.

But no matter how often we have been told to "Show don't Tell," we're still not doing it. Not every time we should. Sure, many writers nail it on the head, but those who do not greatly overpopulate those who do. Even the veterans commit "tell" mistakes...over, and over, and over.

For the most part, it's because showing a story instead of telling a story goes against our natural storytelling instincts. In fact, it is something that has only become popular in the last century since film and television have made their debuts. Read any classic novel, and you are lucky to find any show. Not to say that these novels are bad...quite the opposite. And just because you Tell instead of Show does not mean that your story is inherently awful...

I have read some amazingly vivid and precise writing that modern-day advice would deem Telling.

So how come writers are struggling with a simple technique that every single writer knows? Why aren't we all Showing successfully in everything we write?

Because the advice is bullsh*t. Well-meaning? Sure. But well-meaning bullsh*t.

In the remainder of this series, I am going to break the problem down old-school. And the first step is destroying everything you have previously learned.

Tell me if any of this 'Show don't Tell' advice sounds familiar...

  1. Use lots of dialogue. Dialogue is automatically showing.

  2. Describe using all the senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell).

  3. Use unique descriptions and avoid weak descriptors (tall, quick, small).

  4. Get rid of adjectives and adverbs.

  5. Add metaphors and similes.

  6. Be specific.

  7. Beware stating emotions (has was mad, she screamed in sorrow, etc.).

  8. Overdoing 'Show' will destroy the pace of your story and make it tedious or wordy.

But what you are perhaps not aware of is how vague this advice really is and how it should be applied differently in different contexts.

Dialogue does not always Show; it only acts to keep the reader in the immediate scene (scenes unfolding in real-time. We are experiencing them as they happen to the characters. Do yourself a favor and pick up Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein, for more on this than I ever dare get into in this blog). It is showing in a sense but not in the ways you might think it is.

Unique descriptions/descriptors and lack of adjectives and adverbs do not mean you are showing or telling.

Metaphors are great but can let you down; being specific can backfire and become droning. And you can never state a single emotion directly and still fail miserably. And the last piece of advice there makes me cringe.

You CANNOT overdo 'Show.' If your story has pacing issues or feels wordy, you're not doing something right. You are either...

A) Trying to explain every little thing that is not relevant to the plot,

B) You think Showing means giving a play by play of your character's movements,

C) You think describing clearer means describing more, or

D) You have been so focused on 'Showing' (whatever you think that means) that you have forgotten about the pace of your story or are being careless about how it reads.

Later we will cover how deliberate pacing is actually part of Showing...more on that another day, though.

Sure, the standard advice can and will help, but it will never get you beyond a certain level of writing. For that, we need to start breaking down our writing on a more conscious level.

But first...

What is the general-consensus meaning of Show don't Tell?

"Show, don't tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text."

Thank you, Wikipedia.

When your editor writes 'Show!' on your manuscript, this is what they mean. You are telling us the emotion/description/etc. rather than using better words to show, or allow us to feel, the story.

So why do I take issue with this definition? Because it is a symptom of the problem, not the cause of the problem. And this problem has MANY causes and just as many solutions. To me, it is akin to every doctor in the old west prescribing laxatives for any ailment, regardless of what caused it. Or writing "evil in the bladder" under "cause of death" on a death certificate.

It's the editing band-aid we put on every problematic phrase that doesn't create a sufficient image for us. I'm as guilty of this as any other editor, and yet I'm surprised when the writer struggles to fix the problem.

But we just said something crucial: "Doesn't create a sufficient image."

So 'Show don't Tell' can really be boiled down to how to create an image.

I'm gonna repeat it because it is crucial. IMAGE.

Show is creating an image—an experience.

However, an image in fiction writing doesn't mean what it does when talking about eyesight.

Imagery covers all the senses—the physical, the emotional, the psychological, and even spiritual. So only including the five physical senses into your descriptions is not going to cut it in creating a real Show 'experience.'

How can we, as writers, create a story that manipulates the reader's experience on ALL the many levels above?

We have to Show on many levels as well. Show has to happen on multiple levels of writing, and the individual choices you make on each one will dictate the options available to you in the next.

Showing doesn't start at the writing stage but involves decisions you make from the beginning that allow you to 'build-up' your Show.

Confused yet?

Simply put...

Show happens on many levels in your writing—starting with the most general and ending with the very specific.

On the first level, you have your POV, which will dictate the direction of the 'Show don't Tell' choices you make on the next level. The components of fiction writing.

These have been around for a long time under many names and guises. Starting with narrative summary, which has been a writer's tool for...ever, and was once and still is, to some extent, a form of writing in itself (along with poetry, and memoir, etc.). Now, we think of narrative summary as the summation of events in a plot, rather than the immediate unfolding of them—immediate scene. Immediate scene happens right before our eyes. Then there is description. Description exists both inside immediate scene and narrative summary, but also apart from both. It's what it sounds like—describing a setting or concept, outside the frame of plot and events, but information that is necessary to tell the story. This can include history, places, background info, etc.

(Again. Read more about immediate scene, narrative summary, and description in Stein on Writing. I will be using these terms liberally, but I mostly stick to his definitions. Though, you do not need to read it to understand later posts.)

Upon the components of fiction, 'Show' is also created through the narrative type decisions made at any given point. These are dialogue, inner dialogue, exposition, or dramatic action. But I am also going to put pacing and rhythm in with narrative types. These 2 things should be a significant factor in choosing one and when. Depending on what POV is used, whether in immediate scene/narrative summary, etc., pacing and rhythm will also dictate how you can use these types to help 'Show.'

Above the narrative type level of Show are literary devices. These include metaphors and similes but are by no means limited to them. There are so many literary devices out there for authors; they have almost endless opportunities to make unique, exciting prose that reeks of Show. And they barely have to graze the surface.

The last level of Show is word choice. And this is what the majority of 'Show don't Tell' advice online is limited to. And believe me, it is limited. There is only so much an author can do at this level to take a Telling story and turn it into a Showing one. Because they missed most of their opportunities to Show long before getting to this stage. That is why I said at the beginning of this post that traditional 'Show don't Tell' advice will only get writers so far.

The rest of this series will help you go that extra mile. We will discuss each level of Show at length, and hopefully, you will have a different perspective on an old problem by the end.

Next time we go into the foundation, with how POV will dictate the 'Show' decisions you make for the rest of the writing process and the nuances that come with each type of POV.

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