Show, Don’t Tell

Bah – show don’t tell – I’m not a fan, at least not a fan of blind application of it. I’ve been editing and editing “The Second Tree” for what seems like forever. My friend Blanche Marriott, a novelist herself ( helped me proof read and along the way she made some editorial comments, and for that I am grateful. She pointed out several places where I was telling, and the showing might help move the action along better. I edited parts and infused in showing, and I think the novel is better now in those parts.

HOWEVER, I’m not a fan of doing this exclusively, everywhere in your writing. I started researching this (I get a little obsessed with research) and apparently some other authors agree with me. Take Orson Scott Card for instance, author of “Ender’s Game”, a book I mention in “The Second Tree”:

(Here OSC is replying to another author who changed up his writing to incorporate show don’t tell all the way throughout):

You said: “I made it a point throughout the novel to not tell motivations, but try to show them.”

And you did this because … of those morons who told you “show don’t tell”? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice “show don’t tell” is applicable in only a few situations — most times, most things, you tell-don’t-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.

Motivation is precisely the one thing that cannot be shown. What movies do — using dialogue or most-obvious-assumed-motive to communicate motive is actually not very good because there are no shades or subtleties and rarely can be (it just takes so darn much screen time!). It’s one of the reasons why movies simply aren’t very good at subtle motivation, and constantly have to reach for obvious audience sympathies …

Ursula K. Le Guin of Earthsea fame apparently isn’t a fan either, nor is John Rechy whose piece she references on her “About Writing” pages:

Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. (I make them read the first chapter of The Return of the Native, a description of a landscape, in which absolutely nothing happens until in the last paragraph a man is seen, from far away, walking along a road. If that won’t cure them nothing will.)

This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present. They believe the narrator’s voice (ponderously described as “omniscient”) distances the story — whereas it’s the most intimate voice of all, the one that tells you what is in the characters’ hearts, and in yours. The same fear of “distancing” leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment…

Here’s the original Rechy piece:

So I’m not sure if it was reluctance for change, or simply because, like the feeling I get from a lot of other craft advice, show don’t tell seems rather GIMICKY to me. But since it was bandied about so much, I figured it had to be sound advice. So I altered parts of my first novel to incorporate it.

And it helped. Well, it helped in select spots. It helped in action scenes to keep the reader engaged. But I used my own judgment when I turned it on and off.

Of course I had to look at some of my favorite books and see if they incorporated Show, Don’t Tell (‘SDT’ for short hereafter). First I picked up a more recent one, Hugh Howey’s “Wool”. It had a mix of SDT, used as a tool. Seemed in line with my thinking. Then I picked up Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, and by chance I turned to the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum. Man, talk about switching POVs and going on a telling rampage! This was all the ammo I needed to defend myself against the demons that wanted me to tear my novel apart and rebuild it with SDT.

So I hope I made the right decision. I seem to be in good company…

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