Writing “Rules”: Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is one of my all time unfavorite of the commonly passed around “rules of writing.”

It’s also one of the most poorly understood. A lot of the “rules” that get handed from writer to writer are just silly. At best they’re applicable to one sort of story, at worst they’re head-scratchingly ridiculous. But Show, Don’t Tell has that extra layer of “WTF that’s not even what that means.” I guess it’s the Passive Voice of writing rules.*

First off. Every “rule” of writing is situational. That is, when a writer sits down to write, they have a particular set of aims for the work they’re doing. Some of the techniques available to our writer will be more or less appropriate to the project in hand. Some will be useless, or incredibly inappropriate. There is no one set of tools and techniques that will do the job right every time, not unless you’re knocking out more or less identical works every time. Which is fine, if that’s your thing, right? But it’s not the only way to do fiction. Thank Mithras.

Second–styles and techniques go in and out of fashion all the time. Those “rules” are not Eternal Laws of Fiction, but a catalog of what’s “in.” And a superficial catalog, at that–hold that list up next to recently published, popular and/or critically well-regarded fiction and notice how often some “rules” are honored more in the breach than the observance.

So. Show-don’t-tell. It’s complicated, situational advice that has been packed into such a tiny phrase that it’s become almost entirely useless for conveying the actual concept–unless you already understand it, of course. But it’s not (generally) being passed around by people who understand it.

The thing is, it’s better to show, not tell, unless it’s better to tell. The trick, of course, is knowing when that is. By and large, it’s nearly always better to show, not tell when you’re trying to convey character and motivations, particularly when that character and their motivations affect the plot. So it’s not enough to tell us that Jane hates Jack because he stole her research and then won a Nobel Prize for it, and that she has in fact become horribly embittered by this. Not if you want the reader to really, truly believe that Jane would, as a consequence, devote the rest of her life to breeding an army of gigantic, ironic-dynamite-toting cyborg voles that, in the fullness of the plot, she will unleash on Jack and the Nobel committee.

No, you’ll want to show us what sort of a person Jane is, demonstrate her character instead of just telling us she’s bitter and out for revenge.**

But really, it’s all in what you’re going for, right? There are modes in which “look this king was the evilest ever and that’s why he’s imprisoned the hero” is a perfectly cromulent move. “Pride and envy grew in her heart like weeds,” the Grimms tell us, and move right along to the queen’s assassination attempts.

So, to sum up–in matters of character and motivation, it’s (nearly always) better to show, to demonstrate, rather than merely assert.

But show-don’t-tell often gets mixed up in questions of how to handle exposition. Non-characterization exposition, I mean. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, where often the world in which the story occurs is not a familiar one, and the reader needs a certain amount of information fed to her so that she’ll understand the story.

Now, it’s true that “showing” a worldbuilding detail can be tremendously effective. You want that tool in your box. But it’s also true that you’ll need to summarize or narrate things–it’ll be easier on the reader that way, it’ll be quicker, whatever. What you want is a good balance–you want to show the things that need to be shown, and tell the things that need to be told. What the right choices are will depend on what you’re aiming at, and who your audience is. Telling yourself you need to “show” all the time will not help you.

For the past several decades (I think?) there’s been some fetishizing of a kind of exposition that’s all “show” and no “tell.” A disdain for infodumps goes along with this. And well, sure, the incluing technique is really effective, and badly done, indigestible chunks of explanation or history that stop the pacing dead are no fun. But incluing has its limits, and a beautifully done paragraph of exposition can sometimes do the job better. In fact, I’d argue that well-written exposition of that sort is one of the distinctive pleasures of SF&F.

The simplistic “Infodumps are bad, show don’t tell!” advice won’t help you do exposition better. It will, if you take it without any kind of thought or modification, give you unnecessary heartburn when you run into a situation that is really, truly best handled by just telling the reader what they need to know.

And don’t tell me about how that kind of exposition is difficult to do well so newbies should avoid it. No. Do not avoid practicing the thing you want to learn to do, particularly if that thing is difficult and needs to be done really really well.*** That thing you want to do? Try to do that thing, not some second best, safe option.

So, yeah, no, I’ve got no time for “show, don’t tell.”

*IME a lot of folks who solemnly intone that passive voice is bad are, shall we say, under a misapprehension as to what it actually is, and often as not I find they misidentify passive constructions. And that’s leaving aside the question of actual passive voice having actual, legitimate uses.

**You also probably want to show us those giant cyborg voles, because honestly that kind of story is all about the mutant creatures and the blowing stuff up, although that’s not really what “show don’t tell” is talking about.

***Your best source of helpful writing tips is always going to be the fiction that you love, or that does really really well the thing you’re trying to figure out how to do. Way, way better than some list of “rules” you don’t even know where it originally came from.

7 thoughts on “Writing “Rules”: Show, Don’t Tell

  1. There are only two rules of writing.

    1. Do what works; corollary don’t do what doesn’t work.

    2. Finish what you write; though see rule 1.


    1. Ann says:

      That’s about the size of it! 😀

  2. Thank you! The character / setting divide makes a lot of sense.

    I recently read a trilogy where show-don’t-tell on the milieu was taken to extremes. While the author’s ideas were intriguing, constantly having to piece together aspects of his universe became tedious. A little bit of exposition placed at strategic points in the story seems easier for both the reader and the author.

  3. Almitra Clay says:

    CROMULENT! I’m going to use that word a dozen times today.

  4. n
    nm says:

    Character pretty much has to be shown, not told. Of course, the worst thing ever is to have a character who you are told is [insert adjective of choice] but who, by anything you’re shown, is exactly the opposite. (You know, “charming” characters who have nothing to say for themselves, or “intelligent” characters who don’t seem to react to anything, and like that.)

  5. Damon Knight got this one out of the way very quickly.

    “Show the action, tell the background.”

    Like all heuristics, it doesn’t apply 100% of the time, but striving for this forces one to stop indulging lazy writing, which is what it’s meant to. The one rule that finds them all and in the darkness binds them…don’t be boring.

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