Show, Don’t Tell? Or Not?


Alternately titled, To show, or not to show? On another note: yay for double negatives! And right in the title. I am breaking all the English teachers’ rules today, aren’t I?

I’ve actually been meaning to tackle (not literally!) this subject for a while. Yes, it’s a big deal for me, as a writer. But it also affects so many other people — pretty much anyone who graduated elementary or middle school English class. Or if you’ve ever been to a writing conference. Or if you’ve ever talked to one of the rules police types like the ones Anne R. Allen discusses on her blog here.

I’m talking about the dreaded “Show, don’t tell” rule. I say dreaded because I am sick to death of this arbitrary rule that a lot of people like to hold up as the holy gospel of writing.

Now, yes, it can make things more interesting. “He had sickly pale skin, dark, visible veins all up and down his face and along his neck, and long, stringy hair hanging over his pale blue eyes” is much more informative and just plain interesting than “he was creepy.” That’s an example where show-don’t-tell is a completely valid rule.

But it gets a little ridiculous when we’re dealing with a young adult romance and the heroine and her boyfriend still “crash into each other with flourishing passion. His long, slender arms wrapped tenderly around my waist, and my own hands cradled his perfectly angular jaw as our lips moved together in harmony.”


We’ve seen it all before. Is it really so hard to write “we shared a tender kiss before splitting up for algebra”? Or, why not a hug? A well-written cuddle will always get me better than a thousand steamy smooches.

I’ve got a rule: the amount of effort put into describing a scene should be directly proportional to how big of an effect it has on the overall story, and how much the characters care about it. The hero asking out the heroine for the first time after a while of pining, or the couple’s first kiss? That’s great descriptive material. A rollercoaster ride, or a trip to do something the character has always wanted to do but never had the opportunity? That can also be a bit description-worthy.

You might argue that every kiss with a significant other would be significant to a character. I say, I doubt it. But even if that’s true, it’s ok to not subject readers to gratuitous Purple Prose every time the romantic couple locks lips. That’s just common courtesy.

How about getting a haircut? “I watched as the woman in the light gray apron slowly snipped away at my lovely locks, one by one, until the remnants lay all around my feet and the hair still on my head was short enough to spike up. Like a tomboy. Like what I had become. I still couldn’t believe it.”

Woo. Angsty. How about just “I got it cut short, about pixie length. Once it was done, I missed my longer hair, and couldn’t help but worry what it meant about me.”

Simple, and not nearly as dramatic, but it still gets the point across. The first example was an unnecessary amount of angst and sadness to level at a haircut. News flash: it grows back!

Or a bus ride? “The public seats smelled of old smoke and bubblegum. I took a seat by the window, to see everyone outside in the rain, going about their business, day after day. We drove along the street until we hit the corner at XYZ street, then we drove some more until we got to the massive brick form of the school, towering over the rest of the area. A long line of cars lined up outside the north entrance, where parents dropped off their kids. The driver pulled into the south parking lot for the busses, and I waited until everyone else had left, until I was the last one on board, to collect my bag and binder and leave.”

How about, “I took a seat by the window, because I like the view. When we got to school, the driver pulled into the bus parking lot to unload, and I waited until I was the last one on board to get my things and leave.”

It may not be as dramatic or worthy of the sixth-grade English teacher’s gold star, but it won’t make readers laugh or, even worse, make them put down the book and blacklist your writing.

No joke, I have actually stumbled across stories with parts like that (*cough* Twilight *cough*).

All of those “bad” scenes were definitely in the realm of show, don’t tell. But did that make them good? I don’t think so. You have no idea how annoying writing those scenes was. I felt ridiculous, even though I was making a point.

I’m still a little resentful of all those show, don’t tell rules in elementary and middle school. It’s just setting kids up for a life of bad writing, because schools want their kids to be “creative,” not necessarily good writers. I remember that whenever we wrote short stories in English class, they wanted us to meet a formula. Never mind if you’re writing a story where something on the no-go list would make sense, you weren’t allowed. And, while I understand them making a no-swearing rule for school, it doesn’t help kids to really learn how to branch out and be good authors. I hear they even teach it at writing workshops!

Sorry, writer angst over.

Show, don’t tell can be valid advice, and be applied well to certain situations. But many of the people who say this tend to treat it as some sacred oath that Shall Not Be Broken, Or Else. It’s not. Rules were made to be broken, in some way or another. And I don’t mean that you have to be Stephen King or Fitzgerald or Jane Austen to pull it off. You just need to be able to tell; is this scene meaningful?


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