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Part 1: The Levels of Show

Why Show, Don't Tell Advice Might Be Holding You Back

Part 1: Why Show, Don't Tell Advice Might be Holding You Back Series on The Writer's Cabin

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!"

But it's all bullsh—ok, ok, hear me out. There are a few reasons I believe that we (editors, other writers, bloggers, teachers, YouTubers, etc.) are doing new writers a disservice by telling them to "show, don't tell," at least in the way that it's popularly done.

Here's why:
  1. Writers have heard it so often it has become meaningless. Passing through one ear and out the other.

  2. "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're trying to help.

  3. Show, don't Tell is a blanket term that covers many writing issues.

  4. 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, then 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 that sometimes I just type it accidentally—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 sometimes write it on manuscripts for the convenience of it rather than the effectiveness of the advice. And though they may not want to admit, your editor has too.

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

Would you like that? 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.

Mostly, it's because Showing a story instead of Telling it goes against our natural storytelling instincts. In fact, it is something that has only become popular in the last century since film and television made their debut. Read any classic novel, and you are lucky to find any "Show" (in the way modern advice would have you think of it). 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, and I've seen examples of Showing from those same people that fail miserably.