The Show Versus Tell Debate
by D.M. Johnson
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. — Anton Chekhov
Show, Don’t Tell is a writing maxim. Many believe it’s shorthand for Anton Chekhov’s tutorial comment about the moon and the glass. Like most maxims, Show, Don’t Tell is a simplification, a pithy summary of a general rule, in this case condensed writing advice. Most writers interpret that Show, Don’t Tell means one should write vividly with detailed images, sensory information, and/or dramatized action (show) rather than in abstract summaries or simple statements (tell).
Before we explore this maxim, it’s important to note that there’s a reason it’s called storytelling. The act of creative writing is, at its roots, storytelling. Before writing was widely used as a means to share events and information, stories, lessons, and heroic entertainments came through the oral traditions of storytelling and song. The widespread use of writing facilitated preserving these oral traditions and establishing a central collection of information. In time, often-didactic storytelling ceded ground to entertainment storytelling, leading to our contemporary understanding that we use words to portray events, characters, settings, and outcomes—fictional and factual. There are no actors on a stage or movie screen. All that happens within story is gifted to the reader’s imagination by the author’s application of words to page. All writing is a form of telling, so when it comes to showing, it’s not so much the what as it is the how.
The word “showing” and our cultural idea of it suggest the function of this kind of writing. The act of showing is a demonstration or dramatization of how something is done, how something happened, how something appears, or what something feels like. Think of it this way: It’s more impressive to show someone how the operation of a mechanical device might cut off their fingers than it is to sit in a meeting room and tell them how the machine might do it. The difference is demonstration versus information, such as the universal signage for severed fingers versus a list of bullet points that explain what severed fingers are.
Returning to Chekhov for a moment, “the moon glinted off broken glass” shows an element of scene. From it, a reader can surmise (without simply being told) that:
The moon is out and reasonably bright.
The scene is either outdoors or near a window or open door.
Something significant has happened to cause glass to break and be left where it fell.
The reader is able to surmise these points from the dramatized setting, making it much more vivid and memorable than simply saying “the moon was shining and the window was broken.” The difference is the portrait of a scene versus flat facts.
Examples of Showing
Mary’s heart thrummed when his fingers slid down her neck.
Pink petals fluttered from the trees like cotton-candy snow in the spring sun.
Jimmy slapped the smoke alarm, flung open the door, and tossed the flaming pan out into the rain.
Jesse’s fingertips brushed the grass. The delicate blades, hardy from recent rains, felt like eiderdown.
Telling, in its simplest form, means a concise statement. The grass was soft and green. We’ve all experienced grass that feels soft; it’s well-watered and groomed, free of sticks and debris. Likewise, grass comes in lots of colors, depending on weather conditions and time of year, so when we say green it’s understood the grass is not brown or yellow or blue-green or more dirt than plant.
A statement that tells in simple language is generally bare of unique facts—it certainly can have them, yet seems to rarely turn out that way. Statements provide necessary information without dramatization or portrayal. Jesse touched the green grass; it was very soft. The words do not dramatize Jesse touching the grass; we don’t learn how he touched it and by extension, how he evaluated it as soft. This is quick, informative writing; it’s short and narrow, and the picture it creates is more like a simple cartoon or child’s drawing. In this example it certainly lack clarity and the construction is short on drama.
Examples of Telling
His fingers moved down Mary’s neck.
Petals fell from the blooming trees on a sunny day.
Jimmy hit the smoke alarm, opened the door, and threw the burning pan outside.
If you contrast the examples of telling with those of showing, several things are evident.
Showing takes more words than telling.
Showing is more illustrative and dramatic.
Both methods convey events or information.
Best of Show
You may recall reading this earlier: “words are used to portray events, characters, settings, and outcomes.” Every writer has a choice. He can compose words in a way that is unique and vivid or in a way that is basic and fact-focused.
Let’s say a creative writing student (I’ll call her Karla) takes a bestselling novel by an author who, by consensus, is a gifted writer. Karla rewrites that novel stripping out the vivid writing and replacing it with basic statements. Karla takes away show and tells everything. She keeps the novel’s story intact, yet makes it considerably shorter. As it happens, she also makes it a good deal less interesting, unique, and vivid. The original author’s style or voice disappears, meaning anyone could probably have written it. The resulting manuscript is unlikely to retain bestseller status. Story is fine as far as it goes, but it’s within the richness of showing that the unique and original reside.
Showing elevates storytelling; it’s like the difference between Zeus hurling a thunderbolt and Zeus saying “a thunderbolt”.
Becoming a Show-It-All
New writers often start writing because they have stories they’re compelled to record. A majority of these new writers begin by telling their stories in basic terms—a bit like you find in an illustrated children’s book where the words tell the story in simple sentences and the pictures do the showing. Before too long (or maybe after 25 or 30 years!) these striving writers decide to seek out the advice of family and friends, and in time, probably other writers. Somewhere along the line, one or more of those readers will say, “Look here, you need to show, not tell. You’re just telling me the grass is green and soft. Show me!”
The enthusiastic new writers, upon hearing this advice, realize they’ve only been telling stories all along. They discover they need to dramatize, illustrate with words, and beef up their writing. Maybe this is the secret to bestseller status? Redoubling their efforts, they rewrite, adding lovely adverbs and adjectives, choosing stronger verbs, finding new ways to show the sky is blue and the mountains are tall. These are all good things; vivid, detailed writing is important. Still, before long, they’re showing everything. The whole story is transformed with image after image and bursting at the margins with characters’ physical reactions to everything—pulses quicken, mountains rise and tower, brows furrow, rivers tumble. The writing gets movement, color, and texture—everywhere. The writing also can become self-conscious, stealing the show from the story.
And before they know it, their nice little 50,000-word novellas triple in size.
Let’s back up for a moment and remember that the advice Show, Don’t Tell is a reduction, and that it probably became so the same way secrets change during a game of Telebooks-2: Show, Don’t Tell is a summary.
So what might the original version say? How would the maxim go if it reverted to a full guideline, maybe if the moon/glass advice went back to the first person in the Telebooks-2 circle? Possibly, something like this:
If the moon’s shining is important to create drama and mood at that moment in the story, and it’s also important to tell the reader there’s broken glass, show both by having the one glint off the other.
And professional editors might extrapolate further:
On the other hand if you just need to say the moon is shining, then say it and reserve the dramatization for later.
And the 50,000-word novellas that bloomed to 150,000 words settle down to a comfortable 100,000.
1 lb. = 16 oz.
It’s clear that “showing” adds texture and drama to writing. It injects air and space so an author can express style through use of metaphor, simile, dimensional color, rich texture, and detailed images. Showing is sensory-driven; it’s experience-centered writing and closely attached to our five senses and physical reactions. Yet, we’ve seen that showing’s embellishments take more words, and this runs aground of another piece of writing advice: Be concise. Don’t use three words when one will do. In other words, sometimes writing “the moon shined through the trees” may be plenty vivid while “the moon glowed like a light bulb through the trees” might be too much. So perhaps one time the moon/light-bulb simile is called for and next time “the moon shined” is more than enough? Readers bring their imaginations to a story, maybe the writer doesn’t always have to show everything to the full extent of the maxim?
This is interesting. Can a writer do that? Show and tell?
A Telling Purpose
Editors are known to advise writers that writing is most interesting and compelling when the writing itself is varied and creative—short and long sentences, great descriptions and quick quips, vibrating tension and quiet contemplation. It’s the last one—quiet contemplation—that adds weight to the value of using telling and showing.
Stories and novels are about characters. We read to not only visit exotic places, but also (and probably more importantly) to find out how people handle themselves in situations and what strengths and ideas they use to produce an outcome—we want to know how the characters develop. Such development is an internal process. It’s difficult to show when a character is confused. One can write “Calvin sat in the chair, his mind in turmoil” or “Calvin sat down. His thoughts dashed wildly between what he’d said and what he should have said” or “Calvin sat in the old rocker. His brow was furrowed and his jaw clenched.” But all three of these are superficial representations of what’s going on in his head and they tend to be ambiguous.
His thoughts were in turmoil. Hmm, that’s vague. What about the second example? All those thoughts dashing around seems a bit melodramatic, doesn’t it? In the third, that brow and jaw action could mean confusion, anger, or frustration. What do turmoil or sprinting thoughts mean about his development as a character? What do they convey about his emotions or actual thoughts and thought processes?
Probably, not much. In fact, while all three examples show action in some way, they don’t show us anything important. It’s not about the activity or outward appearance when Calvin’s confused so much as it is about the substance of his thoughts and emotions. A writer can show physical reactions changing, but showing him in this way is more an outside-only sort of thing; it can’t take us into the mind and reveal from the inside out. It can’t express thought processes and reasons for behavior. Even in plot-driven genre writing, we have to know something of the internal character for the story to be multidimensional (there are exceptions to this, related to certain types of point of view, but that’s another article!). It seems then, that this telling business may have some usefulness after all:
Calvin dropped into the recliner. Why had he said no? He should have told Baker he’d take the job. How hard was it to kill someone? Was it harder than the fifty thousand Baker promised to pay? No, Calvin expected it was easier than fifty thousand. Maybe as easy as thirty or forty thousand. What value was a little conscience when weighed against so much money?
Now the “scene” reveals Calvin’s thoughts, goes inside his head, with sentences that have no imagery or drama. They take the reader within character and by simple, informative statements and questions explain what he’s thinking and why. This flips what we’ve learned on its head: When can writing in a telling way be more revealing than showing?
Calvin’s situation and our moon shining through the trees make solid arguments for why telling is useful and showing isn’t an absolute. As a writer, can you think of other instances when telling could be more favorable than showing? How about summarizing off-page events at the start of a chapter? Any others?
It seems there’s more to this Show-Tell business than casual advice implies. While many will continue to advocate for all-show and no-tell, if one looks at it thoughtfully, it’s clear the maxim is quite narrow; the full advice is much broader than writers are often led to believe. When addressing the issue of showing versus telling, several points are worth considering:
Does every part of a story require strong imagery and active details?
Is it necessary (or prudent) to show every action, scene, and sensory element all the time?
Have I weighed the importance of the element I’m showing?
Am I showing everything yet revealing nothing?
Does the prose feel constantly heavy? Does it play like a single note rather than a melody?
Does the writing have balance? Does it include external sensory experience and internal reflection?
It’s doubtful the Show versus Tell argument will fade away, and maybe it shouldn’t—it does get writers to consider other ways of doing things. As long as there are writers at all stages of learning and practice, the maxim will continue to be passed around and argued over. Many writers stick by the tenet that showing is always better than telling, yet others will argue it’s vague advice that should die a quiet death.
From an editor’s viewpoint, writing is about balance. Writers seem to benefit most when they understand the differences between showing and telling and how both can be used. Sometimes showing can tell more than telling. Sometimes it can’t. In a lot of ways showing appears more compelling, stronger: It’s more powerful to show a character sitting in her car outside her ex-lover’s apartment than it is to simply say she still loves him or is painfully jealous of his new lover. On the other hand, telling is more direct and can facilitate revelations that showing can’t begin to represent. Telling can also act as summary when showing every single glint on glass isn’t necessary or practical.
What most writers should probably consider, perhaps more than the maxim itself, is this: When style-related rules are presented as immutable or absolute, it sometimes leads to them being universally applied without further ado—or more aptly, perhaps, with too much ado in one direction only. It seems best to embrace writing maxims of this type like Jack Sparrow’s Pirate’s Code: They’re more like guidelines anyway. How much guidance is acceptable and how it’s used is ultimately up to the individual author.