Show and Tell and Why I Don’t Think It Matters

Photo of a road with two solid yellow dividing lines down the center disappearing into the distance.

All right, confession time:

I despise the adage “Show Don’t Tell.” With a passion.

Once a week, usually more, someone on Reddit or Discord or a forum I’m part of will ask the dreaded question, “How do I show instead of tell?” or “Is this showing or is this telling?” or “How do I show emotion?” That last one then gets comments about how you ought to describe characters clenching fists or gritting teeth or laughing uproariously. Or someone will level this flippancy at someone and call it critique, causing the other person to spiral into an endless self-destructive cycle of ripping their work apart for no damn good reason.

So I’m going to be contrary and confess how much I hate that adage and how utterly useless I find it. If ever there was a piece of writing advice I could expunge from the grand lexicon of writing advice, it’s this one. I believe it was Chunk Wendig in his book Damn Fine Story who pointed out how useless the idea of it is. Because at the end of the day, no matter what you do, you are still telling a story because you are using words not actual pictures. On some level, everything is always told. Is that a pedantic way of viewing it? Of course. Do I know what is meant by “Show Don’t Tell”? Also, of course. But that frankly isn’t the point, because very, very rarely is the meaning of it ever explained when someone bandies it around as wisdom.

I will also get on my high literary horse and claim that the predominance of “Show Don’t Tell” has led to some exceedingly lifeless, emotionless, voiceless prose, and I make this claim as someone who often beta-reads and has noticed this trend of fist clenching, teeth gritting, uproarious cackling, but other than those rather visual markers of emotion, experience utterly no intimacy or deeper emotional connection with the characters. And, dare I say it, I believe this has its roots in the erroneous belief that “telling” the reader what the character is thinking or feeling or experiencing is “Telling” and thus, must be removed in favor of almost cinematic—and lifeless—depictions of the visual action.

Photo of a forest from above, divided down the center by a river, one half dark, the other light/frozen.

Except. Except, except, except—the strength of the written medium is that it isn’t visual, or isn’t just. Cinema, being a purely visual and auditory medium, uses exaggerated expression but, also, vitally, the soundtrack score to create emotional resonance because we, the viewers, usually can’t get a snapshot at what is happening in a given character’s head. Written words, however, can, but don’t have the ability to, say, balance a purely visual depiction with an emotionally resonant soundtrack, so instead, ought to invite us into the that character’s head and emotional space so that we can feel and experience what’s happening. To insist only on “Showing” and depicting only what an outside observer might “see” and allowing us none of that character intimacy, that snapshot into the emotional topography of the story, is essentially denying one of written media’s strongest tools, in favor of one of its weaker (because the strength of a visual depiction is only as strong as its clarity and both the writer’s skill at description but also the reader’s skill at interpretation and imagination—because written media is a method of communication, and as much as we writers like to think it’s a solitary art, it’s not, it’s an act of communication and cooperation with at least one other person, your reader, who is also an active participant and in many ways your co-creator…but that, frankly, is a whole ‘nother blog post*). Because the written medium is not entirely a visual medium—yes, there’s some extraordinary things you can do with layout and typography and font and the visual construction and depiction of the story, but that’s secondary to what it excels at: creating a facsimile of an experience in all its many facets by tapping into the imagination and mining a potential shared past experience of your reader.

The way one can most easily create that deeper intimacy with a character…is by telling the reader what they’re thinking. Not, “They thought this” but a deeper dive, one that breaks down the barriers and filters between reader and character, letting them, for that moment, experience that fictional perspective, which, on the surface, may look like the “telling” of that adage, but “Show Don’t Tell” simplifies the technique and craft of this to a detrimental degree. What I argue the “Tell” of “Show Don’t Tell” actually refers to is a prose depiction that does not invite the reader in to experience the emotion and the character’s perspective, and thus, reads as almost authoritative in its direction…because readers want to feel, want to experience (broadly speaking) and when they are instructed “Feel this!” but the story, the prose, the depiction hasn’t invited them to invest their emotion and imagination, have a contrary response of rejection—which creates the oft-ill-named “Tell.” It’s not the “Tell” that’s the culprit, but that the story/prose/character hasn’t built the relationship with the reader to invite their investment, and so, when they are instructed the character feels this or thinks this or emotes this, but they themselves are not experiencing it in tandem, it creates a dissonance, and the “Yeah, Right” response.

Photo of a bizarre and fantastical teetering stack of a book, binoculars, an apple, and other objects.

It’s harder for that response to be evoked with pure “Show.” Because pure “Show” doesn’t invite their investment the same way. In many respects, pure “Show” forces them to have to embroider the story with their own interpretation and emotional experience, which creates the illusion of great emotionality…except, it isn’t the story that is bringing that emotional resonance, it’s the reader. Which covers the deficit and causes most to think, “Ah, yes, this is properly emotional storytelling.” Now, there are some masters of this style, who do create true emotional resonance through a lack of deep point of view intimacy, an external narrative “camera” as it were relaying the outside representations of the characters and events, forcing the reader to, yes, embroider…but the art behind this technique is that the writer is consciously presenting particular elements that will most likely draw a particular emotional parallel and, thus, create emotionality and the experience of intimacy through the reader’s interpretation. This is deceptively simple on its surface; it’s honestly a lot harder to pull off and pull off well, and, I argue, not universally applicable to all forms of storytelling. It is one approach, one technique, much like a visual artist choosing to use only a palette knife and gouache as their medium and tool for the visual effect, for the challenge. But this does not mean that everyone should only use a palette knife and gouache, nor that that particular artist will continue to only use that medium and that tool. Perhaps it will become a hallmark of their style. Or perhaps it was just for that one piece or series of pieces. It’s an approach, not a rule.

Thus, my parallel to “Show Don’t Tell.” It’s an approach, a way of creating and depicting a facsimile of an experience. It’s not a rule. If you choose, as a writer, to follow this method, know that it’s a method, a choice of tool and medium within your medium, not a rule and not broadly applicable to all forms of writing. You have no idea how many times I see critique leveled at, say, Romance novels that they don’t show enough, only tell…except, that genre uses a different array of tools to create emotional resonance, and one is a deep-dive intimacy with the viewpoint characters and often high octane emotional content because the goal of a Romance novel is to make a reader feel, and feel deeply. That’s the attraction of the genre. That’s the whole point. Of course it’s exceedingly transparent and almost totalitarian with its instruction of what emotions to plumb and what a reader should feel…and, by the way, most Romance readers are consenting and complicit in that, and are, in that way, actively contributing to the emotional resonance of the story.

These are all tools and methods and technique—elements of the craft of writing that are more nuanced with greater degrees of applicability than some flippant “Show Don’t Tell” supposed “rule.” You want to depict deep intimacy with your viewpoint character’s mental and emotional state, regardless of whether it’s in first or third person? Of course, tell the reader what they’re thinking and what they’re feeling. At first, if your skill isn’t quite up to snuff, you will likely run into that dissonance problem and people will, erroneously, advise you to stop “telling.” I argue to ignore them, because the problem isn’t that it’s being told, it’s how it’s being told. Instead, level up your telling skills until a reader simply forgets that they’re reading (or hearing) a story, and instead experiences this scenario of fiction you’re creating for them, with them. Because, like a mentioned, writing and the experience of writing is a two-person road of communication; both you and your reader are reaching out to each other and creating something in that space between.

Photo of a road disappearing off into the foothills of mountains.

And, oh, by the way, one of the other possible contributors to a feeling that a story is “Tell” is that you, writer, aren’t leaving enough room for your reader to dance in this act of co-creation with you. That, too, can create a feeling of being constrained, being stifled—because if you don’t trust your reader and leave them space to imagine and interpret what you are offering them, that, too, creates that contrarianism. It’s a hideously delicate balance, to give just enough that the reader trusts you and imagines with you, but to also leave them room to make the story and the experience their own…while also having their hand held just enough that they are experiencing and interpreting your intent. It takes practice. It takes a lot of practice. And writing is an art—meaning, as you reach the goal, the bar, the “good enough” level, you look up to find…there is simply another level to reach for after that. It’s a lifelong pursuit.

Which, I realize, might sound rather defeating, but to me at least, it sounds galvanizing. Because I can write all my life and still learn new things.

This is not to say that prose that “Shows” is somehow wrong. Far from it! It’s a tool, and if your writing lends itself to it, by all means, embrace it wholeheartedly. I’m only suggesting that there’s more than one way to achieve emotional resonance in your writing, and that “Show Don’t Tell” is denying a whole range of other approaches. Or the entirely delightful possibility of using that range and variety of techniques in one story to create a variety and range of experiences.

And, really, every time I see that advice, I just want to scream…


* Actually, that’s the topic of my thesis that I submitted for my MFA and a presentation I gave at ICFA a few years ago. But that’s neither here nor there.

Photo credit: Photo by Joshua Woroniecki, Photo by Anthony Intraversato on Unsplash, Photo by Pickled Stardust on Unsplash, Image by MaxWdhs from Pixabay

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