“Show don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice. It’s also stupid. Catchy, but stupid. If you tried to write a novel only showing, never telling, you would… Well, basically, you’d have Ulysses, by James Joyce. Not that he doesn’t tell, too. My point is you’d end up needing to use a quarter of a million words to describe each day in each character’s life.
You simply cannot show everything. This, like nearly everything else in writing, is a question of balance. A well written book is a good combination of showing and telling that lets the reader experience things through actions and senses (showing) at a good pace (which requires telling).
What does “Show Don’t Tell” Really Mean?
Some of the confusion stems from the fact that there are a few different categories of “telling,” and what this advice means depends heavily on which tell people are saying should be shown.
Telling through adverbs and adjectives
For the most part, “show don’t tell” advice usually boils down to a simple precept: replace adverbs and adjectives with actions and detail. Instead of telling the reader someone was angry at the end of a phone call (adjective) or hung up angrily (adverb), have her hang up by screaming the word “bastard!” and throwing her phone at the wall. If in doubt, she can get a hammer and scream “bastard, bastard, bastard,” in time to the hammer’s beat against the now-shattered phone’s carcass. Don’t tell me that she is displeased to see a blue screen on her computer, show me:
The problem is, you simply cannot “show don’t tell.” The very thing we try to accomplish by showing – vivid scenes that bring the reader in close – will stop working if we do nothing but show. If your character glances quickly over her shoulder before ducking into an alley, a lengthy description of her head twisting on her neck, eyes moving to the side, etc., will convey that feeling a lot less effectively that “glanced quickly.”
That said, as soon as I typed and saw that adverb I had an urge to change it to “shot a glance” or use some other stronger verb to kill the need for the adverb, so my example would disappear on my first editing pass. I decided to leave it (and this confession) to underscore the fact that I’m not saying “tell don’t show.” My point is simply that we need both, balanced as well as possible, to make our reading pop. If the detective notices someone hurriedly leave a room, and that subtle cue needs to stay subtle for six more chapters, we don’t want to go into greater detail.
“She slid the key into the ignition and twisted. A slight click, then…”
That’s a show, but whether it’s a good one or not depends heavily on whether the car blows up or she drives to work. Just like we don’t want to “tell” about the bomb wired to the ignition (“she started her car, then it blew up” is not good writing) we also don’t want to show every step a character takes to get from one scene that matters to another. The slightly bitter taste on the back of a character’s tongue may be a good show if it’s poison, it may even be a good show if it’s just arugula, but we still don’t want to get bogged down in every sensation every character experiences. Sometimes all that matters is that they ate. Showing well and telling well are critical components to pacing well. “Show don’t tell” is like a cookbook that says “just cook everything at 500 degrees.” Rare roast beef and baked potatoes can’t be cooked at the same temperature. If we want a well-rounded meal, er, book, we need to be willing to pay attention to the knob.
Descriptions (Don’t tell me about the moon shining, show me an apocryphal quote)
A few of you (at least one, I’m certain) probably got this far and wondered: Where’s the awesome Chekhov quote? Because, yes, the best quote about showing and telling is from Anton Chekhov, and, yes, I am, indeed, Anton Chekhov’s bitch. And the most oft-cited quote on this topic is from Dr. Chekhov, who admonished:
Don’t Tell Me the Moon Is Shining; Show Me the Glint of Light on Broken Glass
Except he didn’t. At least not that I’ve ever seen. I mean, sure, you can find thousands of citations that say he said that, but I’ve yet to see one that pointed me to a specific letter or play or anything else where he purportedly said this. Ironically, though I don’t think he ever TOLD us to do this, he SHOWED us what to do in his short story Hydrophobia:
The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star.
Description is, by definition, telling. If you look at masters of description, like Chekhov and Hemingway, something striking leaps out. Instead of describing a static scene or backdrop, they nearly always describe things in a state of motion or flux. More often, they describe an action on the part of a character that incorporates the description and sets the scene without simply telling us what things look like. A cowboy getting seasick in the desert sun from the rise and fall of heat waves cresting on the parched soil and scrub in front of him is painting a scene for us through his eyes and reaction. The result, and goal, are still to paint a scene, but bringing it in through the character’s experience often paints it better.
Often, but not always.
Adverb/adjective, summary, and description tells are each different. Sometimes, those tells are the best tool for the job, and should be used as such. Other times, showing will make writing pop. It’s really a question of pacing as much as anything else. The advice is doled out as “show, don’t tell” because few beginning writers make the opposite mistake. The problem is, giving the advice that way ENCOURAGES people to make the opposite mistake. “Decide whether to show or tell or combine the two in the way that best fits with the tenor and tone and pacing of that particular scene,” just isn’t catchy enough.