When ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is Really Bad Advice

Posted: June 30, 2012 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard “Show, Don’t Tell’ a million times. It’s one of those maxims you can’t escape. But I’m going to stick my neck out and declare…

I think that advice has led to a lot of really terrible writing.

Before you come at me with your sharpest pitchfork, let me explain my madness. I do believe, in many ways, it is good and useful and wise to ‘show’ things. There is a time and place for the camera pan, the action shot, the external focus. But a novel is not a screenplay. A movie is a string of external cues–visuals and sound–that tells a story. The viewer relies on these cues to make sense of the plot and all its underpinnings–the internal, intangibles such as emotion and theme.

The novel is an entirely different medium. A novel conjures a singular experience, not just through external description (what a camera can capture), but also by internal perception (the heart and soul an ordinary telephoto zoom can’t record). In a novel, there’s a lens that trumps all.

The human lens.

The fictive stream of consciousness. The thingamathink that pulls us under the skin of a character. The internal processor that that recalls events and interprets every moment of action in the context of a character’s deepest hopes, dreams, memories and fears.

Yet...motivated by well-intentioned advice, so many writers neglect this lens and start out writing novels like screenplays. They try to live by ‘show’ alone–moving characters here and there on a stage, describing everything in objective, surface-level terms the way a wide-angle camera shot would. This cheats the reader and sentences them to a parade of colorless, cliched gestures and descriptions.

John’s eyes widened in anxiety. Mary’s heart hammered. Glen’s jaw clenched. Raul’s brow quirked. Anna’s lips curled in a smirk. Neville clenched his fists at his sides. Snakes slithered in Jonah’s stomach.

Ugh. These gestures and reactions are all generic. They illuminate nothing about character, personality, conflict or plot. As Francine Prose so aptly writes in Reading Like a Writer, “they are not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states.”

Meaningless shorthand. Yes. But darn it, they show and don’t tell. And that’s the rule, right?


I am nothing more than an puny, unpublished, unknown Writer/Librarian/Beatle-Maniac, but I will not recant. I will not! Because writing fiction is a form of storyTELLING. I agree with Joshua Henkin when he calls ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ the ‘great lie of writing workshops.‘ I say go ahead and slip under that murderer’s/ballerina’s/magician’s/vampire’s skin, tap into that stream of consciousness and TELL that story, infusing every moment that matters with personality and voice.

And if you still aren’t ready to drop your pitchfork, please look at these ‘show vs. tell’ examples before you skewer me:

Showing only (Excerpt altered. All telling parts omitted/edited):

“We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras.
Peeta extends his hand. I look at him. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. I take his hand, holding on tightly.

Showing with Physical Gestures: (Excerpt altered. Telling parts omitted/edited and replaced with physical gestures/reaction):

My stomach twists into knots. We just stand there silently. The grimy little station comes into view. The platform’s thick with cameras. When Peeta extends his hand, my eyes widen. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says, his jaw relaxing. I take his hand, holding on tightly. A shiver of dread runs down my spine.”

Showing and Telling (Excerpt as published, unaltered):

I also want to tell him how much I already miss him. But that wouldn’t be fair on my part.

So we just stand there silently, watching our grimy little station rise up around us. Through the window, I can see the platform’s thick with cameras. Everyone will be watching our homecoming.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me. I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.”

Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES

I think writers need to so show and tell. Still disagree? Did I miss something? Have I forgotten an important point? I’ve braced for impact, so fire away!

  1. THREE THOUSAND TIMES YES. My skin CRAWLS every time I hear that snotty little maxim. I want to stand up on the table and say “Look, people, it’s storyTELLING, not storySHOWING, so when I TELL you that Hunky Hotpants and Tina Troutpout are madly in love, it is because I cannot think of anything more excruciatingly banal than actually trotting them out onstage to SHOW you that. Shut up, take my word for it, and let me get you to the parts of the story that are actually WORTH showing. Pay attention, now – this is the part where the Hormone of Babylon starts assimilating cheerleaders.”

    I love that you have a tag for generic gestures, by the way. Next time you put on your righteous rageface, do a post on that one!

    • jmartinlibrary says:

      Sigh. I could not agree more. There is a time to tell and a time to show. And if you’re going to use a gesture, don’t use a cliche. Make it personal and specific, make it reflect the unique person your character is. I love what Francine Prose has to say on that: “Properly used gestures – plausible, in no way stagy or extreme, yet unique and specific – are like windows opening to let us see a person’s soul, his or her secret desires, fears or obsessions, the precise relations between that person and the self, between the self and the world, as well as the complicated emotional, social and historical male- female choreography that is instantly comprehensible…”

      • Kate Cornell says:

        Before things go too far, I think there is a tendency for people to forget the meanings of those advising sayings. Show, don’t tell, is a suggestion of immersion. You don’t look through a camera when you’re reading a novel. The experience should be more involved because the reader is activating their brain in ways that visual stimulation doesn’t.

        The phrase actually means what you’re saying in the post, not the idea of writing a script. “Show”, in this case, meaning create an experience.

        Other bad advice:
        Don’t use adverbs. Sometimes you just need an adverb, she typed lazily.

        Don’t use “to be” verbs. What? That has to happen. It’s unavoidable.

        Write drunk, edit sober.

        Okay, that last one’s pretty straightforward and accurate.

      • jmartinlibrary says:

        I agree that’s what ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is *supposed* to mean, yet somewhere along the way, people have misinterpreted it/abused it, spawning a lot of dreadful pages in the process.

        Thus, I decided to poke the hornet’s nest.

      • Rosemary says:

        I think–And this goes to Kate’s point–is that it’s all a matter of balance. We have these “rules” for writers because as you’re developing your skill and your voice, you do have to learn not to rely on adverbs and to watch out for passive sentence structure. But as you develop as a writer, you (hopefully) develop an “ear” for when to show, when to tell, and when an adverb or was word is the best for the sentence.

  2. The thing that people forget is that a novel is a story told through a narrator. Even third person narration has a filter. You don’t have to confine yourself to the physical/tangible, because your narrator/POV character can INTERPRET those physical things through the lens of their voice/experience/mood.

    The difference is good telling is telling through your narrator. Bad telling is telling through the author. And it’s hard for new writers to know the difference, so we say “show don’t tell.”

    • jmartinlibrary says:

      YES. You are so right. Good telling vs. telling. And I think a lot of ‘bad’ telling is simply ‘author-ese’–generic narration or seemingly ‘fancy’ words. I know you know my fave Elmore Leonard Quote:
      “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

  3. KatieO says:

    I agree with your post…but…for newbie writers, the show vs. tell idea can be eye-opening. A “tell” story tends to be passive and lacking in that the characters seem to observe the moment rather than experience the moment.

    I do agree that the best storytelling is a blend of show and tell. Great post and great reminder to us all!

    • jmartinlibrary says:

      Definitely, Katie. I agree! When it comes down to it, I think I agree w/ “show, don’t tell” in its original meaning. I just think it has been often misinterpreted in a way that’s spawned some bad writing, if that makes sense?

      Thanks for clarifying a fine point!

  4. Mimi Cross says:

    I’ve been wanting to point that out to people for quite some time, that it’s storyTELLING. Great post. I may be guilty, (she said as her brows drew down into a scowl), but I agree.

  5. abbeyh91 says:

    The last excerpt is definitely the best. I’ve struggled with this concept when writing. My creative writing teacher kept having to steer me away from unnecessary descriptions of ‘bodily movements’, because I always thought I had to stick to this ‘showing emotions’ rule. Sometimes it’s more appropriate just for the character to tell what they’re seeing, because it is, I suppose, showing their opinion of the situation.

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