Tuesday, March 1, 2011

TTYU Retro: Show Don't Tell - Exposed!

This post is in fact a piece of informal research that I did back in 2008 about the writing advice, "Show, Don't Tell," taking a detailed look at what different people thought it meant. I hope you enjoy it.

Show Don't Tell - Exposed!

"Show, Don't Tell" is clearly a phrase that a lot of people have heard, and I'd guess most of those have done some work on trying to apply it usefully to their own writing. This is not always easy, however, and (like me) not everybody considers the phrase helpful, because it takes a lot of complex, rend-my-paragraphs information and extrapolates it into a beautifully phrased general principle.

A beautiful concise principle is harder to apply to one's writing.

Greg Ellis of the Analog forum wrote,
I can hear Yoda in the back of my mind right now.
Try? Try? Do, or do not.
There is no try.

And then there was Josh, from Backspace:
It's like telling someone how to ride a bike: a person needs to try to do it if they want to learn.

So it's a beautiful principle that I need to figure out by doing it rather than hearing about it?
How do I know if I'm doing this right? Okay, let's try the ultimate source of knowledge and wisdom...


"Show, don't tell" is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character's action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator's exposition, summarization, and description.
Janet Evanovich: ". . . instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you're trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life." [1]
Orson Scott Card: ...objective is to get the right balance of telling versus showing, action versus summarization. Either could be right; either could be wrong. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play. [4]

Showing can be done by:

* writing scenes
* describing the actions of the characters
* revealing character through dialogue
* using the five senses when possible

James Scott Bell: "Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted."[7].

The experts have spoken, and they've said first, that telling is basically giving narrative summary, and second, that showing is dramatizing a scene with action, dialog, and sensory information. They have also said that you can't show all the time, that you have to know when to do it and when not to do it.

Clearly, "Show, Don't Tell" is to be taken with several grains of salt, and applied when it's needed, and not when it's not. Here's what I heard about it on the forums:

RALovett of Analog Forum wrote:
I just read a mainstream novel in which the author rigorously showed everything, and the result was a whole book in which precious little of import actually happened.

damiengwalter of Asimov's forum wrote:
I've noticed a lot of writers, particularly those who write novels over short stories, refer to 'show don't tell' as using scene and dialogue instead of narrative voice. IMHO that advice is not very helpful. Narrative voice is pretty essential in a good story, and trying to stick to this idea of 'show don't tell' is a mistake.

Okay, now I have a problem. Because obviously I have to "show, don't tell," but at the same time I have to know when to show, and when to tell, and I bet you any money that readers will be able to tell if I haven't figured it out naturally! Before my head explodes, I think I'll take a step back.

One thing to do is to go and read a pile of books, to look at how others have done it. But as you may already have guessed, I've done that two or three or ten times... The good news is, I think at this point I've figured out "show, don't tell" - but what I haven't figured out is why it stays alive, and is used so often - and more importantly, how to give helpful critique about these issues without using a phrase that so often seems meaningless.

So this whole forum exploration was intended to take all the advice I've heard in a different direction. I asked in four different online forums frequented by writers: Analog Forum, Asimov's Forum, Backspace Writers' Forum, and SFF Chronicles forum (links provided at the end!), to see what people had to say about what "show, don't tell" meant to them. [Note: two Backspace writers asked me to take down their quoted comments. Sorry for the error.]

I came up with four (four!) different meanings.
1. Showing is dramatization, and telling is descriptive summary
2. Showing is story action, and telling is backstory or worldbuilding infodump
3. Showing is using a limited or internal point of view, and telling is using an omniscient or
external point of view
4. Showing is making the reader think, and telling is not making the reader think

Now, let's break 'em down, one at a time.


This is the primary opinion of Wikipedia, and a lot of people at the forums agreed.

Sam Wilson of Asimov's forum wrote:
I think showing happens in realtime and telling is a sort of narrative summary. Both are effective in their place. I got some good advice from a pro once: ration author commentary.

Marian of Analog forum wrote:
In my critique group, I usually say that this paragraph could be a scene (or should be a scene) instead of a description.

Okay, so it seems to me that advice is pretty clear. Instead of saying "John got even with Mary," send him into a scene that shows him achieving this comeuppance. Of course, there are potential hazards involved in showing of this nature, because dramatizing a scene requires the author to pin down a lot of factual and setting details about what happens in it.

As Marian of Asimov's forum wrote,
...that's why novices tell instead of showing. If they just say "One night Harry sneaked into George's house and murdered him" they don't run the risk of getting dinged on errors. Of course they do risk getting dinged on being very boring.

Mike Flynn of Analog forum gave an interesting example:
"Father and brother had a terrible row, and many terrible things were said that could not be unsaid, and in the end brother stormed out and I have not seen him since." This is probably more effective than if the author had tried to show the argument in process. What terrible things could he show being said? No matter what, it runs the risk of not being terrible enough to support the consequences.

I guess what that means is that you can go both ways on this piece of advice. Sometimes taking the reader into a scene is going to make for a better experience, but sometimes it isn't. I guess I have to come back later (below!) to figure out when one might be better than the other. For now, let's look at the second meaning for "show don't tell."


Any of us who have been exploring the world of science fiction and fantasy writing are familiar with the concept of the infodump. The author has some really vital information they have to get across about how the world works, or about a principle of physics which will be vital to a final understanding of the story, or about the main character's childhood which establishes the motivation that will carry him or her through the story, etc., etc. So they put it in. Maybe they write a paragraph about it, or worse, an entire page or more, losing track of the main storyline in the process.

Bill Gleason of the Analog forum described it beautifully:
I think with regard to SF, there's a particular kind of "stuff getting conflated" in the show-don't-tell advice, because in SF there is often the need to convey highly technical information. As has been noted elsewhere, this is why so much SF involves scientists as characters, since it is far more plausible when they drift into discussions of esoteric science than when, say, a couple of professional athletes do it. ... So there does seem to be an inherent challenge that is perhaps unique to SF writers in terms of fiction.

Yes, I can easily see how this one has gotten incorporated into "show don't tell." Here's what some other people were saying on the forums:

Zubi-Ondo of SFF Chronicles wrote:
I personally find myself falling into the "tell" mode when I'm still fleshing out some part of the story or action.

Well, all right. But is it really so bad to write down the things that people really need to know about a world? Here's why Tom Ligon of Analog forum says it's all right:

Telling is fine in a first draft. Go ahead and get the ideas down.

I've seen this a lot in my critiquing experience. The writer starts writing down tons and tons of stuff that's really really important to understanding the story - if you're the writer. Sure. Of course the writer has to understand this! But the reader doesn't necessarily need it. So get it down, learn what you need to, and then write the story as it needs to be written, which is a separate job. About "telling" in that context, Tom Ligon says,

"Telling" can be done well. ... The trouble is, it can be awfully dry and uninteresting if you're just laying out facts or some history. If people are involved, why not incorporate the facts into a personal experience?

Maybe in some sense this is a subset of number one, where we talked about dramatizing instead of summarizing. But dramatizing information isn't the best road, and it often turns into a situation where two people are talking and one is "telling" the other what he needs to know.

Greg Ellis of Analog forum wrote:
Conveying information in science fiction is sometimes, I think, critical to science fiction and sometimes there's just no other way to convey it other than in a "telling" manner (in my case it was a very descriptive scene between 2 scientists looking at the pathways involved - one a specialist in photosynthesis and plant biology, the other an experienced biologist in another field, several years away from his photosynthesis classes).

Zubi-Ondo of SFF Chronicles wrote:
One way to get away with "telling" is to have one of the characters explain something in dialogue. Again, if you do too much of that it will become transparent to the reader, and they will catch on.

And here was RALovett of the Analog forum:
There's also a huge amount of borderline in this whole show/tell arena, that most folks dismiss by stating an overly simple rule. Dialog, for example, is often cited as the epitome of "showing." But the words of the dialog themselves can also be the character "telling" something.

Infodumping is definitely something to watch out for, and I've talked about it in other places on the blog, so I'm not going to be offering lengthy suggestions here. I'm sure it will come up again.

On to the next meaning of "show don't tell":


This one really took me by surprise, I'm not sure why. Maybe I should have realized that "show don't tell" would be linked to the literal idea of "telling" a story. Here's how Mike Flynn of Analog forum put it:

When you can get away with telling[:] I think when the narrator is first person you can get away with this more than when the POV is third person. It may be that omniscient can get away with it, too, because the telling is part of the ambiance of the omniscient voice.
Okay, this is intriguing. When the narrator is first person, it's possible that this person can be cast as a person telling a story about past experiences, in which case that person is literally "telling" the story. In third person omniscient, it's similar - you've got a narrator "telling" a story, even though that story is about other people and not him/herself.

Tom Ligon of Analog forum takes the idea further:
American Indian legends are frequently "told". Just reading them can sometimes be a bit dry. But many of you will remember the opening to a SF TV series years ago which uses a tribal storyteller, and I have a print of a painting called "Buffalo Tales" hanging beside my writing desk that illustrates a storyteller and seven kids around a campfire. ... he is no doubt "telling" with great flare and expression, and the kids are digging it (each affected in a unique way). If you must "tell", try to tell it with a bit of flare.

Bill Moonroe of Asimov's forum added,
I suppose that sort of leaves each storyteller to make their mark via delivery; it's the difference between a gifted preacher telling the Christmas story, and, well, my Shakespearean teacher giving the sermon; one would bring tears to a moai's eyes while the other could put a tiger to sleep. But the use of show vs tell can be the difference between a new look, a new use of the power of myth in a new way and an academic's faithful yet lifeless transcription of ethnic folktales.

Surely, though, there's more to this than just oral delivery of the story in question. Storyteller narrators can be effective or ineffective. Why should that be? This question brings me to the last meaning I found for "show don't tell":


Vague from the Analog forum summed up this definition most succinctly, as follows:
If you 'tell' the reader too much you risk setting them at a distance; because you're interpreting things for them they don't need to think about what they're reading, coasting along, attention drifting.

RALovett from the Analog forum took it further, though, with a terrific example from "A River Runs Through It" by Norman Maclean:

The first few pages of that, available by google on the publisher's website are a classic example of how you can indeed get away with "telling" a story. The first paragraph:

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

Now, I would bet dollars to donuts (not as strong odds today as when I was a kid, admittedly) that a lot of writing groups would flag that as "telling," and advise the writer to show his father talking about the disciples. And I would also be quick to add that this is a book that you either love or can't get into at all. That's because what it's truly about is voice: Maclean's crotchety old-man voice looking back on his Montana childhood. So ultimately, it is showing, not telling, but it's showing the narrator, via the way he tells about Montana, and fishing, and etc.

Really what we're looking at here is a case of "telling" a story - but this kind of "telling" is actually "showing" something else at the same time. So while the reader is engaged in hearing about the narrator's father and his love of fly fishing, he's also learning about who the narrator is and how he thinks - critical information, as I noted above in the section about backstory and infodumping. So in a sense, here's one great way to incorporate backstory - telling a small piece of the backstory that is highly relevant to our understanding of the narratory himself.

Zubi-Ondo of SFF Chronicles wrote:
I consider the rule of show don't tell as part of a bigger rule which is "keep the reader engaged".

And here's one way of doing it: offer the reader more than just the "flat" story being told. Offer the reader a chance to engage in the narrative by constructing information about the narrator while listening to his story.

All of this reminds me of a class I took in college. It was a class about doing qualitative research, and in particular, about the principles behind anthropological field notes. I've heard people who are familiar with large-scale statistical studies say unkind things about anthropologists who go into situations and study them from the inside, but in fact, I found the entire process fascinating - and empirically solid.

The idea behind writing field notes is this. Don't say "there's tension in the room." If you do that, you'll be drawing conclusions from what you see, and writing them down, and people who read your notes will have to choose whether to believe you or not. On the other hand, if you write down what you see, the evidence for the sense of tension in the room (people pacing, wringing hands, sitting awkwardly etc.), then when a reader looks at your notes, that reader will be able to see what you saw and draw conclusions along with you.

I think that is in fact a lot of what's going on in "showing."

Okay, so we've got four different meanings. What can we get out of the whole process, to take forward into our writing in meaningful ways? After all, the rule of "show don't tell" still stands, but it still stands as something we should do sometimes, but not others, or we should do in one way, but not another.

Are we back where we started? No, I don't really think so.

RALovett of the Analog forum wrote:
... the core word to what I'm talking about is "priorities." Otherwise, you'll never get your character out the door.

Forgive me for being a linguistics geek (but it's what I am!) - all this sends me back to H.P. Grice's Cooperative principle, which I discussed in an earlier post. Today I'm going to take it and turn it into:

"Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged."

This is actually a direct quote from Grice 1975, via Wikipedia. If it seems obvious, then let me explain.

What we've been seeing up here is a situation where "telling" (of types 1 and 2 at least) is summary material that does not engage the reader's attention and effort as much as "showing." Excellent. But if as readers we're constantly required to engage at the same level of effort, then we'll become exhausted (and with some authors, we do!). So in a sense, dramatizing and "showing" is a way of indicating that a particular part of the story is important.

The more words you put on something, the more attention it requires from the reader. So the question then becomes, "is this where I want the reader to be placing their effort?"

If all the people in a room are wearing hoods to show their social status, for example - here I've got two pieces of information. I could "show" one person, then another, wearing hoods or doing things with them, so that the reader can conclude that everyone is wearing them. But why should I do that, when the fact of the hoods is less important to the story than what the hoods mean? This is a place where I would simply tell a reader about the hoods, and spend more time exploring their social status and what it means to them using various types of information including the hoods.

My friend Janice Hardy would probably say, "focus on the story." Identifying exactly what the story is can be tricky - it's that elusive thing that hooks us and draws us through, following characters through settings and situations of all sizes and shapes, because we CARE about them. So in the end the process of writing isn't much easier, because we still have to figure out which parts of what we write are vital to the story, so we know where we want to have people engaging, expending effort and attention.

But I hope this discussion has shed light on the topic of "show don't tell," and given you some useful approaches to the question in your own work, or the books you're reading.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Readers Forum: http://www.analogsf.com/aspnet_forum/
Asimov's Science Fiction, Readers Forum: http://www.asimovs.com/aspnet_forum/
SFF Chronicles forum: http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/
Backspace, the Writers Place (paid registration): http://www.bksp.org/


  1. I really like the way you deconstruct this frustrating concept! I hate it when people read my work and say "Show don't tell." I'm always like "In which sense?" I know enough to show emotions, not just say "He was sad" etc. but telling can creep in other ways as well. Very helpful and I'm glad you pulled it out of your archives.

  2. Thanks, Bluestocking! I'm glad you found it helpful.

  3. Very good post. Helpful. Deals well with the frustrating contradictory explanations often offered. Well written.

  4. Thanks, Bryan! It was me channeling my old academic writing style, where I used to do a lot of weaving other people's voices together.

  5. You have NAILED this very frustrating, confusing pearl of wisdom often imparted by critique partners and instructors... Your advice of practice, practice, practice is well-taken. I guess you know you've gotten "show-don't-tell" right when you have an agent ;-)? I do think that certain types of genres seem to allow more leeway for "telling" - i.e. literary novels. Some of them really work, in my opinion... Some not so much. But I agree with Janice to "focus on the story" as your guiding principle.

  6. Melissa, I'm glad you liked the post! I think this is something we all continue to work on in our writing, though we may not think of it in these terms. I know sometimes there are places where I think, "I should have dramatized that," etc. In literary work I think it's more common to rely on readers to think and extrapolate from what *looks* like telling at first glance. That layered approach is more common in the literary genre. Thanks for commenting!

  7. This is wonderful. I snagged it for my links for this week. But in a reader 50% way, what really stood out was the support for field notes :). I'm mostly kidding. I love the breakdown and how you look into what people really mean. Some of those meanings I agree with, some I don't.

  8. LOL, Margaret. These aren't exactly field notes, but if you're telling me I have an inner academic... well, you're right. I started doing this research because I was frustrated with all the ways people talked about Show Don't Tell and I wanted to figure it out. Might as well share with the crowd!

  9. Well, I meant the embedded comment about field notes, but the misunderstanding is true. You studied writers and editors in their native environment to determine that while black and white seem simple, on the left island light gray is considered white while on the right island anything with a hint of black is black :).

  10. You're right, Margaret. I'd spaced a little on the "field notes" reference when I replied to you, but it does kind of apply on multiple levels. Your island metaphor has my head spinning...

  11. Glad to offer something in return ;). You have to understand that having lived in Afghanistan, where the distinction between blue and green is several shades off the US distinction, that kind of cultural difference is natural to me. The arguments I have to this day about whether something is green or blue, especially aquamarine shades, can be crazy.

  12. That's funny. My husband and I constantly disagree about colors, but I'm not sure it's a cultural thing... I know that green street lights in Japan are called "aoi" (ocean-blue). Apparently there are different distinctions in blue in Slavic languages as well.