“Show, Don’t Tell” Is NOT a Writing Rule



In “Let’s Talk About ‘Show, Don’t Tell” – published on Tuesday – I said we’d have a whole entire post about why it isn’t a writing rule.


Please don’t get me wrong though: What you're about to read does not diminish the previous two articles in the series.


“Show, don’t tell” is a great piece of advice in many situations. One creative writing coach says that showing a detail invites your readers to take an active role within the story. And that can be true.



I won’t give credit where credit’s due there though out of professional courtesy. That's because I don’t want to name him, only to criticize him… which I’m about to do.


Unlike so many of our creative writing coach colleagues, I will say this. He does acknowledge that you don’t always want to show. But, like so many of our creative writing coach colleagues, he still elevates it onto a pedestal anyway, essentially saying that you can tell whenever a detail doesn’t matter.


If I wanted to be professional, I might call that notion misguided. If I wanted to be blunt, I’d call it silly. And if I wanted to be realistic, I’d say no writer actually practices what he preaches here.


It would be incredibly impractical and time-consuming on his part if he did. And it would be incredibly boring on the reader’s part.

While the idea that showing is an invitation to engage with a story sounds very considerate, it’s actually not. Not if you’re going to employ it every single time.


It’s true that readers want to be involved. But that doesn’t mean they want to do all the work. That’s the writer’s job.


It’s also the writer’s job to decide when showing works best and when telling works best. In which case, I can only give guidance without knowing your specifics.


I’d love to give you a firm statistic here. But that would make me just as rigid as the creative writing coaches mentioned above. And creative writing is rarely a rigid practice.


That’s why it’s called “creative” writing. It depends on the author and the story.

“Show, don’t tell” is not a religion, and the people who try to enforce it are not gods, literary or otherwise.


Some writers get downright fanatical about the “show, don’t tell” so-called rule. And they will try to condemn anyone who doesn’t follow it.


Forget them though. They honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. Any experienced writer in their right mind knows that sometimes you’ve got to show something off to full effect, and sometimes you’ve got to tell it how it is. It all depends on the sentence and situation.

It’s not necessarily even about mundane moments vs. intense moments. No offense to the specific individual I didn’t quote before, but he's wrong in that assumption. Once again.


Take the snippet: She ran. Fast. She ran so fast she thought she might die in the process. But if she didn’t run fast, she knew she would. So she kept forcing her feet to fly.


That’s a whole lot of telling right there. And it's telling that works.

In June 2012, novelist and short story writer Joshua Henkin took to Writer’s Digest to say this next bit:


… let’s dispense with the obvious – namely that there is a kernel of truth to the old saw “show, don’t tell.” Fiction is a dramatic art, and you need to dramatize, not simply state things. The sentence “John was a handsome man” is not a handsome sentence, and though a writer is welcome to use it, she shouldn’t think it will do much work for her…
But it doesn’t follow from this that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy. It doesn’t follow that all a writer should do is show. To my mind, the phrase “show, don’t tell” is a wink and a nod: an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.
A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art [form], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are… But novels are better at other things.

Sound familiar? I didn’t even read that before I wrote yesterday’s Writing Challenge. It’s simply a matter of common sense.


Essentially then, let novels be novels. Let incorrect novel writing coaches be incorrect novel writing coaches if they so desire.


And let your writing be your writing, complete with showing and telling as necessary.

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