Don’t “Show, Don’t Tell”

Earlier this week, on Twitter, I saw an interesting “demolition” of the conventional wisdom that informs no shortage of creative writing classes: “show, don’t tell.” And, being glad to see the conventional wisdom demolished, I thought I’d share the advice I prefer to give my students…

“Show, don’t tell” is, like most creative writing “rules,” bullshit — not to mention a vestige of Cold War-era propaganda and orthodoxies. But, crucially, rejecting it doesn’t mean you’ve got a license to do the opposite and just “tell.” These are the binary extremes of a whole array of choices you’ve got in front of you, and it’s your job, privilege, and responsibility to make your choices freely, knowing what you intend to achieve with them and knowing also what alternatives you’re forfeiting.

So, yes, you can absolutely show instead of telling: you can observe the materiality of an environment, construct characters with intelligible psychologies, set scenes, orchestrate action, depict events cinematically, etc., and thereby immerse your reader in a particular moment. Or you can tell instead of showing: summarise events, enumerate thoughts and feelings, explain motives and consequences, and generally move through time — or back and forth through time — at a faster clip than if you show the nitty-gritty of all this stuff. When you show, you risk losing pace, momentum, and to some extent the significance of details, in cases where significance might come from a freezing of time, or a telescoping of chronology, to dwell on them in-depth or to observe their ripple effects from afar. When you tell, which is to say summarise and/or explicate, you risk losing the immersive capabilities of full-scale depiction, and therefore some of the emotion that readers tend to invest in characters whose stories they experience up-close, in something approaching real time.

(Sidenote: “telling” can also be “showing”, because at least when a first-person narrator tells a story, you are showing them in the act of telling, which overlays a new temporality on the events they’re telling the reader about. And “showing” can also involve “telling”, because when you’ve got an externalised, third-person depiction of a scene in which a character tells a story, you can show others’ reactions both to the telling in the moment and the tale itself. Othello does this really well.)

Anyway, ultimately, it isn’t a binary choice, is it? Page by page, line by line, moment by moment, you’re going to make that choice over and over again, and every time you make it you’re going to fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. The artistry isn’t necessarily in showing or telling, but in oscillating between them — in the degree to which you do it, and the frequency with which you do it, and your strategies for modulating the oscillation, gently fading with a nice segue or giving your reader whiplash. And the artistry is also there in having a sense of the effects you can generate by choosing one instead of the other, as well as a sense of the effects you’re not generating — but could — if you went down a different route. So, in rejecting the binary choice, don’t reject it at the outset. You may well want to “show, not tell” at some stage, or “tell, not show.” It’s a choice to make continuously in every moment of the process, depending on what’s in front of you at any given instant.

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