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. Although it’s good advice, “show, don’t tell” is not a universal truth that transcends every other rule of writing. While it is true that showing can help to instill more 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 might 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.

I’ll end with the advice of novelist Francine Prose: “…the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out.”

5 thoughts on “SHOW vs. TELL

  1. Moderation in all things, right? You bring up a good point that too much “showing” can wear out a reader (and the writer). In the same way, too much “telling” can get boring. I find that if I take the time to read the manuscript aloud, I am more likely to catch when I’ve gone too far one way or the other because, as you mention, each method has a kind of rhythm.

  2. Great reminder. There is a time and place for everything, especially in writing. It is definitely better to move through transitions faster by telling and to dramatize the story itself by showing. It’s really a matter of rhythm with appropriate peaks and valleys. Nice post.

  3. Good post, Cornell. Yeah, “show, don’t tell” is great advice, but we have to weight it against common sense in each situation and do what actually works.

  4. Great article – I agree completely. I love this quote…
    “I’ve read way too much on the overused/misunderstood buzzwords “Show, don’t tell!” that I’m convinced all novels should now be picture books”
    ― Michael Kroft

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