The Reality of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’

The most oft-repeated piece of writing advice is, of course, show, don’t tell. There are articles all over the internet of varying degrees of accuracy explaining what exactly this means and how to put it into practice in your own writing. To save you the trouble of googling it and squinting angrily at the plethora of almost-but-not-quite good advice out there, here’s a basic explanation of what people mean when they spread this now trite piece of advice:

Show, don’t tell is about conveying emotion and subtlety in scenes through the use of actions, dialogue, sensory details and the like, rather than directly telling the reader what is happening in a scene and how to feel about it. Showing allows the reader to be immersed in the story and draw his or her own conclusions, while telling will get the reader from point A to point B using the writer’s direct thought process and personal analysis.

There’s a lot more nuance, and many professional authors and amateur bloggers have taken a stab at explaining this technique, so by all means google it if you want to waste an hour, but that’s the gist of it. It’s commonly accepted as good advice, and nowhere will you find people arguing with it. At most, someone will tell beginning writers not to worry about it until further in their career or will argue yes it’s good advice but it’s not the only good advice, as contrary people do, but most writers will confirm that this short, overused phrase is by far the best way to write.

It’s a simple concept, but one of the hardest to master without years of practice. Even with years of practice, young writers might not be aware they’re still telling because no one will be honest with them if their book isn’t the best it could be.

Thanks in large part to the internet and the death of journalism, the average internet user is constantly exposed to clickbait headlines, easy-to-read listicles, and wildly sensationalized language. Twitter explains every thought that has ever passed through the head of every celebrity and nobody. Facebook shouts constantly about things that are going to kill you and things that you absolutely can’t live without, often at the same time. Anyone with access to the internet can be a writer, and quality doesn’t matter as much as follower count. Typos run rampant. Proper grammar is a luxury. Sentences don’t really need to make sense. Everyone sees it happening. Nobody would argue that it’s progress for the human race.

But we’re desensitized to it. We’ve grown used to it. We expect it.

We expect writing to be laid out for us detail by detail so it’s impossible to misunderstand. We expect obvious similes and the same tired phrases, because we know what they mean. We want to be told—we don’t want to think. In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay about how political writing was ruining the English language and, by extension, society. He said, “modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

While this sounds harsh, it’s as true today as it was then. The cliché strips of words may have changed, but the sentiment remains: writers continue to recycle tired turns of phrase because it’s easier and quicker than being fresh, new, and creative.

Take, for example, this paragraph from Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury:

Two days passed. Every moment of it was a balancing act of truth and lies. Rhys saw to it that I was not invited to the meetings he and Amren held to distract my kind host, granting me time to scour the city for any hint of the Book.

A balancing act. Saw to it. Granting me time. Scour the city. All of these phrases are tired. They’re no longer images meant to clarify, they’re canned phrases recycled for quick understanding. While these phrases may have once shown a reader a bit of action, they’ve been overused to the point that they’re nothing more than a fancy way of telling the reader what’s happening.

Take another excerpt from Sarah J. Maas, this one from Throne of Glass:

The prince’s eyes shone with amusement at her brashness but lingered a bit too long on her body. Celaena could have raked her nails down his face for staring at her like that, yet the fact that he’d even bother to look when she was in such a filthy state … A slow smile spread across her face.
The prince crossed his long legs. “Leave us,” he ordered the guards. “Chaol, stay where you are.”
Celaena stepped closer as the guards shuffled out, shutting the door. Foolish, foolish move. But Chaol’s face remained unreadable. He couldn’t honestly believe he’d contain her if she tried to escape! She straightened her spine. What were they planning that would make them so irresponsible?

She’s got more canned phrases, with shone with amusement and a slow smile spread across her face, but there’s more than that. There’s Celaena’s direct-to-the-reader asides: Foolish, foolish move. He couldn’t honestly believe he’d contain her if she tried to escape! These kinds of sentences are lazy on the part of the writer, saving her the trouble of having to show anything through action or detail or dialogue, and they save the reader the trouble of having to interpret and imagine anything the author might have written.

Compare those paragraphs to these from Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, another fantasy novel:

The one called Cinder sheathed his sword with the sound of a tree cracking under the weight of winter ice. Keeping his distance, he knelt. Again I was reminded of the way mercury moved. Now on eye level with me, his expression grew concerned behind his matte-black eyes. “What’s your name, boy?”
I stood there, mute. Frozen as a startled fawn.
Cinder sighed and dropped his gaze to the ground for a moment. When he looked back up at me, I saw pity staring at me with hollow eyes.

Rothfuss eschews reader-directed asides for action and detail. You can tell the boy is scared without him having to come right out and say it. A tree cracking under winter ice brings to mind death and coldness. Mute and frozen show him unable to react, a common response to fear. Instead of canned phrases and images, Rothfuss pulls fresh ones, comparing movement to mercury, personifying pity. This is showing instead of telling.

Many authors today, especially in the world of young adult books, have thrown show, don’t tell out a high window, watching it shatter to pieces among their huge piles of money. Sarah J. Maas, V.E. Schwab, Leigh Bardugo, Jenny Han, J.K. Rowling… the list goes on.

“I think he’s brilliant,” said Harry coldly.
“Do you?” said the boy, with a slight sneer. “Why is he with you? Where are your parents?”
“They’re dead,” said Harry shortly. He didn’t feel much like going into the matter with this boy.
“Oh, sorry,” said the other, not sounding sorry at all. “But they were our kind, weren’t they?”
“They were a witch and wizard, if that’s what you mean.”
“Well, I’ll see you at Hogwarts, I suppose,” said the drawling boy.
Harry was rather quiet as he ate the ice cream Hagrid had bought him (chocolate and raspberry with chopped nuts).
“What’s up?” said Hagrid.
“Nothing,” Harry lied.

Look at all the adverbs. The dialogue tags. The phrases that leave absolutely nothing to interpretation. The Harry Potter books are some of the worst violations of show, don’t tell in popular culture. There’s no emotion in the dialogue here, everything Rowling wants you to know is in her dialogue tags: Said Harry coldly. Said the boy, with a slight sneer. Said Harry shortly. Said the other, not sounding sorry at all. Harry lied. Half of those, if not more, wouldn’t be necessary with the right character movement, but there’s no action punctuating the dialogue. The only sense of reality touchpoint we get is Harry eating ice cream, which has nothing to do with the conversations that are happening.

And before you say, “but these books were written for children!” compare that passage to this one from Wolf Hollow, a 2017 Newbery Honor Book, also written for children:

I twirled a stem of hay between my palms. “Can I ask you a question, Toby?”
He laced his fingers. “You just did.”
I saw his mouth twitch again with the seed of a smile.
I almost said, “Can I ask you another question?” but realized that that would itself be another question. So I said, “What’s your name? Your family name?”
But Toby didn’t answer. He looked away. “No,” I said quickly. “I have a better one.” I wanted to know where he was from, if he had any brothers or sisters, whether he’d ever had a dog and what he’d called it, how old he’d been when he went to fight in the war, how he’d come to be hurt, how old he was now (though my mother always said he had to be forty-four, forty-five or so), and what he’d meant when he said that he’d done “something bad.”
“What’s your favorite food?” I blurted, feeling like a child.

There’s only one dialogue tag other than said, which gives it punch. Dialogue is interspersed with actions, showing the reader what the characters are thinking without coming right out and telling it with adverbs. Sentence structure is varied, creating music, instead of the bluntness of Rowling’s exchange. Writing for children doesn’t have to mean writing poorly, and writing for the Buzzfeed generation doesn’t have to mean stooping to that level either.

These wildly popular authors, while often egregious in their violations of basic writing rules, are the exceptions. Each has other qualities of her books that make up for poor prose. For Sarah J. Maas, it’s her worldbuildling and swoon-worthy characters. For Jenny Han, it’s the sweet innocence of the story. For J.K. Rowling, it’s the sense of camaraderie her books created.

Literature that ignores show, don’t tell certainly has its place. It’s a good tool for getting non-readers to start reading. It makes for quick reads than can be spread quickly, and for books that can be written quickly. It can, obviously, even be wildly popular if it connects with readers in just the right way. But it’s still weak writing.

Show, don’t tell is clearly not necessary for success. You can try to be the next J.K. Rowling and write a derivative story with choppy prose, you can be the next Sarah J. Maas and ignore real metaphors for easier tried-and-true phrases. This might mete out some level of success, but the reality is you’ll probably be laughed out of every major publishing house. You can try to self-publish, and maybe a thousand people will read your story and a third of them will like it, because it’s the kind of prose they’re used to, but the rest will see it for the weak writing it is.

Or you can be revolutionary. You can take the successes of these popular books—lovable insert characters, a sense of belonging, escapist settings—and apply every good thing you know and are learning about language and pacing and quality writing, and you could give people the book they didn’t know they needed. You could let people think for themselves, let them see and imagine your stories without being told. You could be bigger than the next J.K. Rowling. Don’t dream to be derivative. Dream to be better.