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Review of the “show not tell” writing rule

The “show not tell” rule originated from Anton Chekhov’s saying: “don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This method was popularized by Ernest Hemingway and somehow became a credo in the modern writing world (together with freewriting, a technique that should be abolished – read here, why).

I had doubts about the “show not tell” rule for a very long time, for a simple reason: “show not tell” clearly contradicts the “stories are meant to be told” (Caren Gussoff) and raises the following question: “if you don’t want to tell stories, then why are you writing them?”

Nowadays, in the world of google graphics and smartphone photography, we don’t need to describe anything at all. More and more people are shifting to movies, cartoons and games and we shouldn’t blame them. The world is developing and books are quite an ancient invention. They were a great way to frame reality and make things immortal back then, but now, with so many ways to document physical (and fictional!) reality, they have become outdated and imperfect. This is a big reason why “show not tell” is sometimes so hard.

And sometimes impossible. We, writers, tend to think that we are omnipotent, but in fact we are very limited by the most important tool that we are using: language. I am a polyglot, who speaks 5 languages, somewhat understands at least 2 more, and is able to read 3 different systems of writing. I use my knowledge A LOT when I write. And yet, sometimes I feel horribly limited by lack of words – especially when describing music. Even if I describe the melodic line word by word, and list all the instruments used, I can’t make the reader “hear” what I want them to hear. They will hear something else.

Using the “show not tell” rule obsessively is not going to free you from limitations of the form of expression you’ve chosen; not only that, it can wreak havoc on your style as well. Here is how:

  1. “Show not tell” strains your text with redundant descriptions and unnecessary scenes. Example: we have a book with 12 chapters, each chapter is a month, the plot is encompassed in year 2017. However, everything that happened in 2014 is also meaningful. According to the rule “show not tell”, I ought to show the retrospection as scenes. This increases the book’s length, as well as time needed to edit and read it. In case of indie authors, who invest money in putting their work out there, this is a big problem. A sentence or paragraph of “telling” is enough to “show” what happened before.
  2. “Show not tell” makes less important scenes equal with more important scenes (as they take as much space), which can change the composition of your text. Let’s say a minor character gives birth to a child, but the main character is currently on an important job interview. If you insist on showing everything that s happening, the reader will be confused: who is the main character? Which event is more important? What is the dominant mood? “Telling” helps you avoid distracting the reader from the main plot.
  3. “Show not tell” often turns to be impossible if you have chosen the first person’s POV. The main character cannot know what all other side characters are doing. Someone has to tell them at times. Yes, you can use the omniscient narrator, but this will destroy the mystery.
  4. “Snow not tell” kills valuable dialogue. Dialogue should to provide extra information, express opinions, reveal the character etc. If you insist on “showing” everything, suddenly there is nothing to talk about.
  5. “Show not tell” can’t convey complex thoughs, feelings and ideas. Besides, not all characters express themselves through actions; some prefer to speak.
  6. “Show not tell” amplifies the emotional effect of the scene which sometimes isn’t needed. A frustrated character doesn’t always have to smash plates. A grieved hero isn’t required to sit at the cemetery twenty for seven. Sometimes a few words are enough to express what you want to express. When you really want to move readers, use “show not tell”, but not all the time – it will lose its effect.
  7. Readers, especially children, don’t like to read long descriptions at all. “Show not tell” is obsolete advice that might have worked when there was no photography and people didn’t know what things look like. “On the Niemen” by Eliza Orzeszkowa is one of the most hated books because of its long descriptions. Nowadays most people skip descriptions to know what is happening with the plot. They don’t want to read how the sea looks like; they want to know what feelings and thoughts the sea evokes in the main character. Especially if you are writing children’s literature, “show not tell” is a bad idea. A kid won’t have patience to read long descriptions that could be replaced with one sentence or paragraph.

I personally use “show not tell” in the following situations:

  1. When I want my characters to express themselves through actions/behaviors/looks rather than words. “She had blue hair” instead of “She was rebellious”; “He tapped fingers on the table” instead of “He felt impatient”.
  2. When I am writing from the first person POV and the main character is a witness to certain events.
  3. When I want to amplify the emotional effect of a scene. “He smashed plates” instead of “He had ptsd”.
  4. When I want to prove a statement. For example, the guy tells his girl he likes her; AND he brings her coffee every day and answers her calls when he’s busy.
  5. When I want to create a unique mood for the scene and direct the reader’s attention to it.

And you? When do you use the “show not tell” rule?

Author:

Hi! I am an author. I've published my debut novel in 2015 in Poland ("Dokąd teraz popłynę?"). My main genre is fantasy and magical realism. I often discuss socially difficult topics in my works and try to pass on a message of hope. I am always inspired and I never stop writing. My writing inspirations are Bruno Schulz, Pablo Neruda, Kiran Desai and Haruki Murakami. In my private life I am a polyglot. I believe in the Law Of Attraction and I write about it on UltimateManifester at Wordpress.

2 thoughts on “Review of the “show not tell” writing rule

  1. For me, “Show, not tell” isn’t an overly elaborate process. I use this in 1st and 3rd person narratives but basically as a means of using ‘Sensory Impressions’ to help bring the reader into the story. Being descriptive doesn’t require long passages necessarily. Small elements often create pictures for the readers.

    Readers relate to sensory impressions because we use our five senses to learn. If you tell a small child the stove is ‘hot’, the child doesn’t really understand until … discovery (touch). From then on, memory serves to remind him/her what hot means. Senses trigger emotions, and emotions trigger memories, which trigger pictures in one’s mind.

    “Show, not tell” is best done with specifics. Vague descriptions are boring. Paint the picture with sensory words and not vague descriptions. An example would be, “The bird sang in the tree.” Vague, bland, etc. Whereas, “On the lowest branch of the large cherry tree, the bluejay rasped its shrill cry.” Longer, more words, but paints a picture by giving specifics. And in the springtime, if you’ve ever seen this scene, it registers with the reader. Bluejays are notorious for bullying other birds away from food, especially ripe cherries.

    I agree with you that overly long descriptions are often skipped. I skip long passages when someone fully describes every piece of furniture in a room. Minor descriptive details with specifics are subtle but allow us as writers to paint vivid pictures. For me, that’s what I think about whenever I read “Show, not tell.”

    =)

    1. Thank you for such a long and detailed comment, Leonard! <3
      I agree with your views, the quality of descriptions is more important than their length. This is a reason why I prefer reading poetry to reading novels – I believe that the poets have truly mastered the art of "showing not telling" in just two sentences – while novelists still struggle with that.
      The example about bluejays you provided was fantastic! I believe that Anton Chekhov would praise you for this one. 😉
      Have a great day!

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