Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Myth of "Show, Don't Tell"

The reason I decided to write this post is because it seems like a requirement that a writer and his blog include a post about "show, don't tell." I've read so many all over the internet, from Writer's Digest to the little blogs unknown writers keep. Their content is uniform. This is a good thing because it looks like we've all learned from the same book on writing. But they are all problematic.

To me.

I should be clear. I found most articles to include examples and statements that were problematic. I have also come across articles in blogs, even in some respectable websites, that try to debunk "show, don't tell." But these are as short and vague as the articles that advocate the advice. Their arguments--and they do try to argue their points--rely on qualitative statements that don't really make their points convincing. Also, the authors of these other type of articles are often confrontational, looking to pick a fight with those writers who love "showing" and not "telling."  

Here is what I'm promising: This is not a "How to..." article. There are plenty of other places giving out advice on writing. What this is: Discourse. I want to look at how YOU approach the subject of "show, don't tell" in your blogs. It is all a discussion.

Before I start, let me say that I have the greatest amount of respect for any writer who's willing to put themselves out there and publish something. I especially have respect for writers of articles that attempt to shed some light on this sordid profession of ours. Writing fiction is not simple and the writer of the "How to..." article takes a great leap in trying to explore solutions to problems we all face while drafting our stories. Please do not take offense to the observations that follow. They are not meant to belittle you. And if we disagree about some point I've raised, let us say that it was my failure to better explain my view that was the cause.

I will also warn you that this is a lengthy exploration into the topic in question. It will test your patience. But I feel that it is important for the development of any writer who takes their craft seriously to be able to fully consider all discourse into techniques. If you are a writer who looks for the quick and dirty in all situations, then you need to stop reading now.


I don't know where it came from, but I'm going to guess. Maybe it was in one of his letters that Anton Chekhov delivered some writing advice that I just cannot agree with:

"Don't tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass."

The man was a very skilled short fiction writer (I've not had the pleasure of one of his plays). Because he was a dramatist, perhaps he was talking about something to do with theater in that quote. Or who knows, maybe he was taken out of context so that it looks like he is saying one thing, but on the whole wanted to discuss something else. Maybe he was giving advice about a particular piece of fiction where it would have made sense to say what he said. If you know the source of this quote, please post it in the comments. I would very much like to examine the whole document it is in. 

But, why don't I agree with the advice? The short answer is this: It's formulaic and puts emphasis on one way of describing moonlight. It is a blindshot. Are you really going to tell me there isn't a situation in your fiction where "The moon is shinning" is not as effective as showing you the glint of light on broken glass? How vague! 

And we writers like to run away with vague ideas. Look at what we've done to Chekhov's words:

Show, don't tell.

I remember how confused I was when first introduced to the words. I didn't know what it wanted me to "show." Action? Emotions? Setting? Another way to phrase this idea of showing and not telling is like this:

It is better to show and not tell.

And you know how much I dislike the word "better" when comparing writing techniques. Not all writers feel this way about "show, don't tell." Hell, there is even a wikipedia article about it. This is how the wikipedia article on "show, don't tell" ends:

"It could be argued that showing and not telling is what separates fiction and literature from news-writing or historical narration."

How ridiculous! It's part of the reason why I don't think everyone should be allowed to edit wikipedia. Are you really going to tell me that the fact that novels include fictitious situations does not set it apart from news-writing or historical narratives? And let's be fair. Pulitzer winning journalism often uses vivid language and descriptions that could best be called "showing."

The long answer to why I disagree with Chekhov's advice deals with fiction in general and writing in particular. It examines the relationship the writer has to the reader. When I dug in, I concluded that there were some very nasty questions I had to ask, like this one: Is there a correct way to write fiction that every writer ought to be following/using? 

You'll pardon me, but to make sense of all this I need to start from the beginning. The very beginning. 

In the beginning, there were the elements of fiction and what the writer meant to do with them. 

1) The elements of fiction

What the writer attempts to do in a story, long or short, is manipulate the elements of fiction for some end. Maybe this end is as simple as wanting to amuse the reader with a new story or trying to evoke their emotions. Maybe there is a political or religious or social agenda behind the story (if taken far enough, this is called propaganda--see the Nazis). Maybe it is for artistic expression or growth or experimentation. There are as many reasons for writing fiction as there are writers; it's just their opinion on the subject, which is why there is no right or wrong reason to write fiction.

What are the elements of fiction? Who knows. I don't. Every time I try to pin down a list, I find another list that has something I never thought to include. Or I'll come across an article or writing book that splits one of the elements I have into various others so that the total number is always greater. These are the elements that usually make the lists:




My list? I'm not giving it to you. Why not? I refuse to add to that chaos. Let me say then that it doesn't matter what YOU consider an element of fiction. Suffice to say that what the writer attempts to do when writing fiction is manipulate these elements. Is this the truth? It is an observation. Read any story and you'll see your list of Elements of Fiction at work. The person who wrote the story had to decide how best to include these in the story. I'll agree that this is not always done consciously. There is an enormous amount of artistic instinct involved in the writing process.

But not so when revising.

The revision of a story forces a writer to evaluate how the elements of fiction interact in the text. Here are some of the questions I often ask when revising a piece (and maybe you do too). Does the dialogue add to the characterization? How much action have I summarized? How much action have I described in detail? Are there logical errors in the plot? Etc.

Notice I didn't add a qualitative statement. I never said, "I need to eradicate the summarizing of action." I also never said, "I need to show character emotion with vivid descriptions." These statements don't make sense to me. But these are the type of statements made in most of the "How to..." articles on "show, don't tell" that I've come across.

Is this wrong? The word "wrong" doesn't make sense in fiction. It would be more appropriate to say the articles are misguided. Let me be more specific.

2) "Show, don't tell" Articles

Whenever you see a "How to" article on "show, don't tell" they usually give you choices. They present either two sentences or statements that describe character action or emotion, sometimes setting--one form of description or another. Next they shun one example, the one the authors deem as "telling" or a summarizing or simplifying of the subject matter. They add qualitative statements galore; the "telling" statement is adequate but dull; it is flat; it is not powerful enough; etc. After shooting down the first example, they praise the example they say is "showing" and recommend that you also do it in your fiction.

Finally, they'll include a different kind of qualitative statement: The reader reaction. They conclude that the "showing" examples are: More engaging to the reader; better at creating mental images in the mind of the reader; better at giving the reader a view of deeper character emotions.

The problem with these conclusions is that they attempt to do something that I think is not very wise. They try to tell you how the reader will react to the statements. I never understood how a writer can say that one sentence is more engaging than another. Doesn't every reader have their own unique experience while reading? And aren't readers a diverse bunch, so much so that trying to guess what they'll like is nearly impossible? The best you can say is that the statement engaged YOU more or that YOU thought the statement was dull. To speak for the experience of someone else is erroneous.

If there are studies that support your views, please present them in your blogs and then leave me the links in the comments; I'm as curious as the next writer. 

And besides that, it strikes me as premature to consider reader reaction while drafting a story. Maybe after giving out a piece of fiction to test readers can you truly begin to analyze reader reaction--because then you'll actually have some. 

Rarely, these articles will add a different kind of statement after all those qualitative statements about reader reaction. It is a disclaimer that says that this advice might not always hold true because that's the nature of fiction--this is actually true.

Let me explore why I find all of the above problematic. When explaining, I will refrain from using qualitative statements and instead refer to the elements of fiction.


The first problem: Statements are not fiction

Which of the two statements is more effective? 1 or 2?

1) The window was open.

2) Light fractured as it passed through the closed pane of glass; that's how clean momma had left it. But a curtain of pure yellow stretched through the open pane and flowered in the room. How lovely! Like a celebrity at an award ceremony, the wind walked in and looked around--the scents of summer its perfume--and there was chirping as the sounds of life entered next. An intoxicating experience. Delightful. 

So, what was your answer to the question? 1 or 2? 

Some of you are suspicious now and maybe said 1. Others will stick to their guns and say 2--that Corsair is just a buffoon who is too confused for his own good. The truth? It's a trick question. What you should have asked is this: Effective at doing what? Statement 1 and 2 are not fiction. They are just two statements. On their own they are not effective at anything. 

Let's create a piece of flash fiction where you will actually have to decide which statement is more effective. Ahem...


The heel of the detective's boot tore down the front door to the apartment. He rushed in, his breathing heavy. Where was she?

His eyes darted to the kitchen.

Not there.

Next to the small bedroom.

Not there.

He opened the bathroom door and looked inside.


His fingers combed through the remains of his hair, tearing off samples. There was nowhere else she could be. His head whipped here and there and back again as if maybe he had missed something the first time.

And then, as if a hand had gently guided him, he turned around.

*insert statement 1 or 2 here*

He sprinted to the window and slammed on the ledge, unable to stop in time. His eyes searched the street below. The tops of people's heads mocked him.

"Hannah!" he cried. 

His eyes wouldn't give up. 


He collapsed on the ledge. They had taken her. Or maybe she didn't have any confidence in him and ran off. It slowly became clear that he had failed another human being. 


And now, like a silly game of mad libs, you insert statement 1 or 2 where it says to. Which of the two is more effective in this piece of fiction? More importantly, why? It is the "why" that matters here.

Statement 2 completely destroys the pace of the fiction. It is also ridiculous to consider "momma" at this juncture. Given the context of the fiction, I would decide not to use statement 2.

In the example above, the pacing of the action and the tone of the story needed something particular. These are different in every situation in fiction, every description of action or sequence of events. There are pieces of fiction in which statement 2 would fit.

The point is that writing fiction is not a game of mad libs. We don't have a pool of statements in a bucket and choose which ones we need to complete the fiction we're writing. To use statements as examples suggests that we can do this. Wouldn't it make better sense to analyze a chunk of fiction rather than just two statements?

The second problem: Instantaneous behavior is different than a pattern of behavior

I said above that one of the things the "show, don't tell" articles try to do is advocate vivid descriptions when presenting character emotion while discouraging sentences that summarize the emotion. Here are the types of examples they usually give you:

A) Bob was upset.

B) Bob swatted the menu from the waiter's hand, accidentally knocking over his complimentary glass of water. His date gasped, but one look from him and she lowered her face. Paging through plastic pages showing photos of the dishes available, he overheard the people in the next table whispering about him. Drips of sweat massaged his brow until he could take no more. "Mind your fucking business!" he said and launched the menu in their direction. Someone called the police. 

Again, the authors will conclude that B is the "better" way to present the idea that Bob is upset. And again, A and B are just statements, not fiction. This shows a lack of concern for the context of the fiction. 

Now, consider this: There is a difference between trying to present a character's emotions in the moment (a reaction to a given situation) and trying to reveal a pattern of behavior. Is Bob having a bad day or is he always a jerk? Neither statement A or B answer this question. So, it doesn't make sense for me to advocate A or B. 

Instead I'll consider the writer's intent in the fiction. 

I will complete the following piece of flash fiction depending on how I wish to characterize Bob. Hmm... Let me create a set of circumstances that make Bob the victim of a bad day. 


What was it about today that made things seem so impossible? Every client at the car dealership had lost their temper and left. Every one of his comments during that sales meeting had been ignored. And the one account he had closed...if only the client had kept his kids in check, that soda can wouldn't have spilled over. He had to redo the entire contract.

It's something in the air, Bob's boss had said, don't sweat it.

The workday had been an omen he had ignored. Now here he was in this overpriced Italian restaurant with a beautiful woman opposite him. Why had he not cancelled the date with Cynthia?

"If I start drinking wine now, I'll start dancing on the table," said Cynthia and let out laughter that roped Bob in with its seductive quality. Too bad it wasn't meant for him.

"Let me start you off with two bottles then," said the waiter. 

Cynthia let out more of that laughter. The two carried on like that for one of the longest minutes Bob had ever suffered through. It was warmer now. They were ignoring him. Why was he sweating so much? No one was helping the situation. Worse, a couple from one of the adjacent tables had joined in on the fun, excluding Bob throughout. They were having a wonderful time. 

The waiter was about to leave without taking Bob's order. That was it. That was it! 

Finally, Bob stood up and said, "Hey!"

"Sorry, pal!" said the waiter as he rushed back to the table. "Your friend's got me all messed up."

This made Cynthia laugh again. It was all so delicious. 

*Here I would insert B to complete the piece of fiction since it maintains the integrity of the tone. Thought I was going to use A, huh? Ha!*

For the sake of the flash fiction, I summarized the events of the day; I didn't want to go into more detail than that. If this was a longer piece of fiction, I would have, probably adding more action. Now notice that it doesn't matter how I think B "sounds" or how much I think it will engage the reader or even how much "better" you may think it is at presenting Bob as an upset person. 

The intent of the fiction is not realized until I have the complete piece; for me to get across that this is just a one day thing and Bob is not usually like this I need the whole thing. Summarizing the previous part of the day helped as much as going into detail about the date. 

Could I have summarized the date and gone into detail about the work day? Yes! It is of upmost importance that the writer decide what events must be given in great detail and what events must be summarized. Depending on your intent, you may wish to pay more attention to Bob's work day. 

***(I'll explain why later, but note that in addition to not using the words "show" and "tell" and "better" in my explanations, I'm also not using the following term: scene)***

But what if Bob did this sort of thing often because he has anger issues? Would it make sense to describe in detail every single instance of him blowing up? That would be redundant. 

If I was to attempt to characterize Bob as person who's always on the edge, the strategy would be the same (at least for me). There are a near infinite ways to do this if you didn't jive with what I did up there. For example, your writing style may focus more on colors, like the reddish tone to Bob's face when he loses it or the dark blue patches of skin just under Cynthia's sleeve where Bob may have grabbed her with enough force to bruise or just straight out beaten her.   

The third problem: First Person POV is different than Third Person POV

Is your story in the First or Third Person point of view (POV)? Most of the examples I came across in the "show, don't tell" articles were in Third Person. It should be simple enough to translate their advice to First Person, right? Not exactly. Not all the time.

Consider this type of example:

1) She was upset.

2) Tears ran down her cheeks. She tried to speak, but the words choked her. Instead she sobbed and sobbed.

For the sake of argument, let me suppose that I want to use 2 in an imaginary piece of fiction. Let me translate 2 in First Person:

Tears ran down my cheeks. I tried to speak, but the words choked me. Instead, I sobbed and sobbed.

That seems simple enough, but what if I told you that "she" was happy? Had I not mentioned in 1 that "she was upset," there would be no way for you to know what the emotion was in 2; it is just too vague a description. But that's just something to consider. Let that thought simmer in your head. For now, it seems as if the translation from Third to First person POV was easy.

Now consider this:

His chest thumped, thumped, thumped to the rhythm of the ultrafast music. Sweat rained down his face as his limbs jived and swung and twisted. He had become a force of nature, a tornado of movements that lured in a current of body odor and sweet perfumes and colognes. The floor screeched whenever he slid to and fro. What were thoughts? He was music personified.

Now in First Person...but wait. Do you understand the problem? First Person POV has limitations. How does it work if the main character is not the subject of the above paragraph? Unless your main character, the "I", is telepathic, he/she won't know that the character observed has no thoughts. And unless he/she has incredible senses, how will they notice the rhythm of the person's heart or the smells the dancer picks up?

How about this then:

That over-excited idiot jumped onto the dance floor. He screeched to and fro like a basketball player on fire. But his moves weren't sophisticated. God no. He was about as graceful as a newborn chicken. I wanted to pull him aside to save him further embarrassment. He was making a fool of himself.

There is a little extra in this narration that isn't there in the Third Person version. No, it's a statement, not fiction. Yes, it has to do with the perception of the speaker. It is the flavor of the main character's personality. He's a little mean spirited when describing the dancer. The description is not what you might call vivid, but given the voice, it wouldn't make sense for the "I" narrator to be vivid or to work the senses like a Third Person narrator would.

If you've ever read a book like The Catcher in the Rye, then you know that a prominent voice helps develop one of the elements of fiction: Characters.

The First person POV is all characterization. Every pattern of language, every statement, everything the narration focuses on develops the character to the point where they may even be unreliable (we've all read that one book where the narrator loves to lie to us).

The way your character describes things in First Person is unique to him/her. If they are poetic, there will be a flair of the poetic in the narration. If they are sarcastic, sarcasm will appear sprinkled throughout the narration. There is no "better" way to have your main character describe things in First Person, there is only the way that your character wants to.

And this is a point that stabs me in the gut whenever I read an article on "show, don't tell." Weren't the writers taught about POV restrictions? Why are all their examples in Third Person POV if they do not translate to First Person POV? Here I am bitching. I apologize for bitching. Moving on...

The fourth problem: Character descriptions are more than just character descriptions

Here is another type of examples that I've come across:

A) Jake is obese and old.

B) The metal chair shrieked as Jake tried to pry himself off of it. But his body fat shifted and he almost toppled over, balancing himself at the last second with a foot. The ordeal had left him out of breath and for a minute or so, he was frozen in place, like a flesh tripod. His hairpiece lay on the floor and who knew where his bifocals had gone to. If only he were twenty years younger, he kept thinking, if only...

Again, the authors who use this type of example will say that B is the "better" way to "show" Jake is old and obese. Again, this suffers from all the other problems discussed. Now consider this:

Jake...that fat piece of shit. There was a rumor running through the station that he had been there when the precinct first opened its doors some fifty years ago. It was time to put him out of our misery, if you asked me. Is that cold blooded? Well, fuck it. This world isn't for sunshine and fairytales. The old need to make way for the young. It's time for Jake to collect that Social Security check.

That's First Person POV. Who cares what Jake looks like or what his age is. The main character is revealed by the way he describes Jake. But is this just a First Person POV thing? No. Third Person POV will reveal voice too, the AUTHOR'S voice.

Here is a passage from Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room that gives us a sample of her voice:


She touched the spring of her dressing-case, and ascertained that the scent bottle and a novel from Mudie's were both handy (the young man was standing up with his back to her, putting his bag in the rack). She would throw the scent-bottle with her right hand, she decided, and tug the communication cord with her left. She was fifty years of age, and had a son at college. Nevertheless, it is a fact that men are dangerous. She read half a column of her newspaper; then stealthily looked over the edge to decide the question of safety by the infallible test of appearance... She would like to offer him her paper. But do young men read the Morning Post? She looked to see what he was reading--the Daily Telegraph.

Taking note of socks (loose), of tie (shabby), she once more reached his face. She dwelt upon his mouth. The lips were shut. The eyes bent down, since he was reading. All was firm, yet youthful, indifferent, unconscious--as for knocking one down! No, no, no! She looked out of the window, smiling slightly now, and then came back again, for he didn't notice her.


There is very little action going on in this passage but character description and characterization (we learn an enormous amount of information about the man and woman). Virginia Woolf is famous for dwelling in the minds of her characters while nothing of much importance is going on. But the voice is there, disguised by a Third Person Close POV.

And now a sample of Lewis Carroll's voice in one of his most famous novels:


So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but, when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and, burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.


Do you see how different the voice is? Carroll gives us character description that is playful. But don't let the apparent child-like innocence of the narrator fool you; it is the author's voice we're hearing.

Now here is a sample of a voice that is more brutal. This is from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian:


See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him.

Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.

The mother dead these fourteen years did incubate in her own bosom the creature who would carry her off. The father never speaks her name, the child does not know it. He has a sister in this world that he will not see again. He watches, pale and unwashed. He can neither read nor write and in him broods already a taste for mindless violence.

There is something cruel in McCarthy's character description that is as cruel as the landscape the novel takes place in. But this quality is part of the author's voice and it follows him to other novels; All the Pretty Horses and The Road are two novels of his that I enjoy which also have that cruel quality in the voice. 

But what I wanted to get across is that your voice is unique to you. If you follow a mantra that tells you it is "better" to describe characters, setting, emotions one way, then you cheat your creativity out of developing a voice. More importantly, if all writers followed the "show, don't tell" mantra, wouldn't that create a literary landscape that is monotone?

3) At the Movies

I've come across one or two of these "How to" articles that compare writing to aspects of cinema. A few liken "telling" in written fiction to a character in a movie standing up on the theater stage and describing the movie you are there to watch. In other words, imagine if Eddie Murphy stood up on the theatre stage and summarized the plot of Shrek in a long soliloquy instead of the moving playing on the screen. That would be a poor movie-going experience indeed. 

I don't understand the comparison to written fiction though. It doesn't make sense to say that using descriptions that draw the senses is like watching a movie and that summarizing points is like receiving a speech about that same movie. For one thing, 100% of novels use a combination of summarized and detailed events. If you know of a novel that uses only one type of descriptions, please bring it to my attention; maybe I am just poorly read. 

Otherwise, does it mean that novels "show" and summarize the movie at the same time? Huh? 

It doesn't make sense to me, but it does to writers who think that we ought to make short stories and novels more like movies. I reject this notion.

For one thing, a novel is not a movie or a play. A short story is not a movie or a play. Cinema and Drama are different forms of artistic expression with their own concerns and styles. THERE ARE OBVIOUS SIMILARITIES. Like, storytelling in movies, plays, short stories, novels all share some of those unnamable elements of fiction. I don't think this is enough to justify trying to make written fiction like visual forms of storytelling.

And besides that, don't we lose something special by attempting to make one form of art like another? Reading a work of written fiction is as unique an experience as watching a movie. I like to think that there is enough room in the world for both to co-exist.  

4) The End At Last!

I am no one. Louis Corsair is not a respected literary figure. This means that if anything in this essay makes sense, it is because the information makes sense. Too many times I have seen students listen to poor advice because of the literary status of the person giving it. What does that say about writers in general? 

The myth of "show, don't tell" is that it assumes there are simple formulas you can follow when writing fiction that will ALWAYS work. 

The myth of "show, don't tell" is that it asks you to ignore the plethora of considerations a writer must give thought to when drafting even the shortest piece of fiction. 

The myth of "show, don't tell" is that you can use vague terms like "show" and "tell" to understand fiction and  the complex nature of writing--so complex that most of it is innefable. 

The myth of "show, don't tell" is that it assumes there is a correct way to produce "good writing" when the only Truth is that whatever quality makes writing great is unique to a particular work of fiction or generation or period in history. 

But here I have lingered long enough. Now I have to start planning that post about the differences between revising, editing, and copyediting fiction. 


PS: I mentioned up there somewhere that I wasn't using the term, scene, for a reason. But this is not the place to discuss that. 

1 comment:

  1. I had some technical difficulties with this. There was an odd white background that was on some of the font and in places the text was not readable!

    Please try again now. It's all resolved (I hope)...