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The Truth Behind the Creative Writing Rule of “Show, Don’t Tell”

Today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is all about that oft-quoted creative writing rule: “Show, don’t tell.”

Now, I’m not a fanatic when it comes to this maxim. In my (not really) humble editorial opinion, it’s okay to tell a story detail sometimes. If all you ever do is show, it can get longwinded, adding unnecessary words to your final, genre-specific count; and quite possibly annoying your readers, who just want to know what in the world happens next.

Consider the following lines (that I just randomly made up):

“But I didn’t do anything wrong, Matthew,” I pleaded. “This wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t my choice. So I just don’t know what you want me to say.”

He was furious. That much was clear by the way his blue eyes stared back at my brown ones, his lashes moving so little that he didn’t seem human in those fifteen seconds or so.

A show-don’t-tell traditionalist would point out that “He was furious” isn’t necessary. I could have just as easily written something like, “His blue eyes were hot and harsh as they stared back at my brown ones, his lashes moving so little that he didn’t seem human in those fifteen seconds or so.”

There are a number of other ways to phrase it too, no doubt. But from my authorial perspective, I prefer “He was furious.” It’s a short, simplistic sentence that drives home the point I’m trying to make here – which is that he was furious.

For that particular set-up, I didn’t want something flowery. And there’s nothing wrong with just coming out and telling it how it is sometimes.

With that said, there’s also nothing wrong with showing, including when it comes to setting.

There are many, many situations where a described setting vs. a stated setting can draw readers into a story so fast and so far.

So you can say, “She was cold.” But before you set that in literary stone, ask yourself if the scene would be stronger with something like, “She shivered in the biting wind.” or “The chilled air slapped her face, leaving her skin chapped and burning.”

I’m not saying the scene will definitely be stronger that way. I’m putting out a genuine proposition for you to consider. Because “She was cold” might be followed by “She was so very cold, and she thought she might never be warm again,” which could be perfectly evocative.

Or what about this storybook scenario. Say you’re writing about how your protagonist is uncomfortable. You could, of course, simply state that “Jonathan was uncomfortable.” Yet you should at least recognize that there are ways you could show that setting detail instead, such as the following:

  • Jonathan’s back was already stiff, but his shoulders tensed even more as the seconds slipped by.

  • Looking behind him, Jonathan couldn’t help but feel like he was being watched.

  • Jonathan’s eyes darted around him, certain there was something wrong no matter if he couldn’t identify it. Had he been female, he would have called it women’s intuition.

(And just for the record, yes, an uncomfortable atmosphere is a setting detail. If you need a rundown of how that can be, check out Tuesday’s blog post.)

Here’s a final consideration, this time for the statement, “The mountains were beautiful.” Does it work as-is, or could it be strengthened by showing instead of telling along the following lines:

  • The mountains weren’t high enough to be snowcapped, even so early in the year, but that didn’t draw away from their beauty.

  • Stretching up before him, the mountain range he’d soon be climbing was a multi-layered construction of too many colors to count.

  • He had to blink back tears at the mountains up ahead, with their tall bare trees at the bottom and majestic grey crags at the top. No doubt, they were more beautiful in the summer and fall, but they were still gorgeous to him right then.

Ultimately, you need to be the judge of whether showing works better than telling or telling better than showing in any given sentence or scene. Consider outside advice and criticism, of course, but don’t let anyone – not even the so-called experts – dictate your story under such rigid guidelines.

After all, it’s called creative writing for a reason.

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