Editors Blog

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops

Show Don't TellI’m honored and excited today to be bringing you a guest post by critically acclaimed novelist and writing instructor Joshua Henkin. I first discovered Henkin’s work years ago when I received an advance copy of his novel Matrimony at Book Expo America, and I later enjoyed having him contribute a thought-provoking essay on the art of storytelling to Writer’s Digest magazine (in fact, two of his writing tips from that piece made our Top 20 Writing Lessons From WD list in 2009).

I invited Joshua Henkin to be our guest this week in celebration of the release of his brand-new novel, The World Without You. His topic of choice—a sound argument for breaking the “Show Don’t Tell” rule of writing—is a perfect extension of my post last week about How to Break the Rules of Writing.

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His new novel, The World Without You, has just been published by Pantheon. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and directs the Master of Fine Arts program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. You can connect with him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @JoshuaHenkin.

Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops

OK, let’s dispense with the obvious—namely, that there is a kernel of truth to the old saw “Show, don’t tell.” Fiction is a dramatic art, and you need to dramatize, not simply state things. The sentence “John was a handsome man” is not a handsome sentence, and though a writer is welcome to use it, she shouldn’t think it will do much work for her. Similarly, in the first workshop I ever took as a student of writing, when someone wrote “An incredible feeling of happiness washed over her,” the teacher said, “First of all, get rid of the ‘washed over’ cliché, and second of all, if in the course of an entire novel you can evoke an incredible feeling of happiness, then that’s a major accomplishment.”

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But it doesn’t follow from this that a writer should never say a character is handsome or happy. It doesn’t follow that all a writer should do is show. To my mind, the phrase “Show, don’t tell” is a wink and a nod, an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.

A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from, and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time (everything in a movie, by contrast, takes place in specific time, because all there is in a movie is scene—there’s no room for summary, at least as we traditionally conceive of it). But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction). To put it more succinctly, fiction can give us thought: It can tell. And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?

And yet day after day we hear “Show, don’t tell.” And there’s real fall-out. I see it constantly among my students, who are nothing if not adjective-happy. Do we need to know that a couch is a “big brown torn vinyl couch”? We are writing fiction, not constructing a Mad Lib. Yet writers have been told to describe, and so they do, ad nauseum. It’s like the sentence that was popular in typing classes—“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs.” Well, this is a good typing sentence (it contains every letter of the alphabet), but it’s a bad fiction sentence.

If you ask me, the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it’s so much easier to write “the big brown torn vinyl couch” than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language. You will never be told you’re cheesy if you describe a couch, but you might very well be told you’re cheesy if you try to describe loneliness. The phrase “Show, don’t tell,” then, provides cover for writers who don’t want to do what’s hardest (but most crucial) in fiction.

Besides, the distinction between showing and telling breaks down in the end. “She was nervous” is, I suppose, telling, whereas “She bit her fingernail” is, I suppose, showing. But is there any meaningful distinction between the two? Neither of them is a particularly good sentence, though if I had to choose I’d probably go with “She was nervous,” since “She bit her fingernail” is such a generic gesture of anxiety it seems lazy on the writer’s part—insufficiently imagined.

—Joshua Henkin

Announcing the Winner of Our Giveaway

Speaking of breaking the rules of writing: Thanks to everyone who left comments embracing the spirit of breaking the writing rules. The randomly chosen winner of a free copy of The Rule-Breaker’s Issue is: Ivye. (Ivye, please email writersdigest [at] fwmedia [dot] com with your mailing address, and we’ll get your issue out to you right away!

Preview and/or order the full July/August Writer’s Digest here, find it on your favorite local newsstand, or download the complete issue instantly.

Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer’s Digest Magazine

Follow me on Twitter: @jessicastrawser


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5 thoughts on “Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops

  1. sm5574

    This author doesn’t seem to get it. “Big brown torn vinyl couch” is telling. Just because you throw in some adjectives doesn’t mean you are suddenly showing. This is showing:

    A couch sat in the living room like a log, it’s vinyl bark rotting and peeling in uninviting places.

    I’m not saying this prose would win any awards, but it’s active. It creates an image rather than stating one, and that is the difference between showing and telling.

    Here’s the thing: I agree with the author, in that showing everything would be overwhelming and destroy flow if that’s all we did. The key is to understand the difference so you can intelligently decide which to use in any given situation.

  2. Maryann Pope

    I do agree that just saying “show, don’t tell” is being sloppy because that seems to mean something different to everyone. It is just too vague, being more specific is more helpful.

    Personally, I think that “show, don’t tell” means going deeper into POV. It isn’t just giving more details, but giving the right details through the eyes of the POV character so that we are seeing, feeling, and experiencing what the POV character is experiencing. It allows the reader to more immersed in the story and more connected to the POV character.

  3. EVANGEE

    Oh how I wanted to simply close this window without leaving a reply. But I can’t. Show, Don’t Tell has rankled me since the 100th time I heard it. Why? Not because my work is so bad that the experts need to constantly remind me, but because every armchair writer that belongs to a writing group or online community thinks that they will sound wise, like a real expert, if they use that piece of advice regardless of the circumstances of the story they are reading.

    Whether or not Mr. Henkin has presented a convincing argument is a moot point, just a matter of opinion. I understand what he is saying.

    For me, the answer to Show Or Tell is so simple and obvious. A good story uses the right balance of show and tell. I say, all those would-be experts that spout out Show, Don’t Tell as their first criticism are much like the smug sports geniuses who sit in their chairs and yell at the quarterback on television – Pass, Don’t Run.

    It is the manic overuse of this simplistic phrase that makes it the great lie of writer’s workshops.

  4. davnick

    Some good points, but overall the argument fails to convince.

    The telltale sign of the lazy and inexperienced writer has and always will be telling rather than showing, not the other way around. Like cliches, “telling” is what comes to the mind naturally and automatically without thinking.

    And how “the big brown torn vinyl couch” somehow compares to describing internal emotional states is beyond baffling. The overuse of adjectives (with or without the necessary commas) is hardly synonymous with “telling.” It is bad practice whether the writer is showing OR telling.

    If Mr. Henkin’s students are indeed conveying the sense of a camera panning in their stories, they deserve more credit than he’s giving them. Imagery is at the heart of storytelling. When we read, our imagination doesn’t supply us with a chalkboard full of scribbled words; it gives us PICTURES. Poets describe the soul and spirit of a person, an object or a feeling with vivid imagery and analogies. Painters, too, convey the intangible with tangible, often troubling, images.

    What’s missing in the description of the nervous girl or the girl biting her fingernail boils down to this: Everything. Who is she? How old is she? Where is she? What’s happening to make her nervous? We can answer those questions by either telling or showing. We can refer, for example, to “the 14-year-old girl,” or we can mention how she gazed intently at the pattern of wrinkles in the skirt of her school uniform. In the latter instance, there’s a place to go. In the former, it’s a dead end, not to mention downright boring.

    Maybe the next guest writer can address “the great lie” of why the passive voice is weaker than the active voice.

    — David Nickell

    1. jdcummins

      I think the argument does convince, davnick. What irks me most about writing people is the dogma that seems to persist–show don’t tell but one example. The scourge of the Writing Program–Flannery O’Connor was right. The author rightly points out that many literary greats (Proust, Woolf, and, one of my favorites, Samuel Johnson) told rather than showed all the time–frequently gloriously. What so often draws us in to a writer is not how s/he describes a scene but his/her take on it, how the mind of the writers folds in the psychological and/or dramatic with the scenic, and how this is all filtered through what used to be called the writer’s sensibility. If I just wanted description, I’d read police reports. I want more than that–I want great conversation, insights, wit, personality. If showing not telling were the epitome of great writing, then someone like Hemingway would be considered a better writer than Proust or James, which he most certainly is not, at least in my book. Sometimes showing not telling is a convenient way to avoid what lies underneath, which can only be hinted at in describing. And sometimes it’s just not that important to go into all the questions you mention–who is she? where is she from? what did she eat for breakfast? why should we care about all this? And to follow your argument what’s unnatural and un-automatic is better than what comes easily? What’s arch and studied is superior? Mmmm, don’t think so. There really are few, if any, rules to great writing–all the greats break them sooner or later. We don’t valorize great writers for subscribing to the common dicta of the day. Au contraire. That’s the wonderful thing about art–our expectations can be so often subverted. If telling can be formula, so can showing when carried to rigid ideology.

      I do think that we have been deluded regarding the passive voice and its alleged inferiority to the active. The passive voice is a grammatical structure used to omit the agent of an action. Sometimes it’s not important to mention the agent of an action or sometimes one deliberately wishes to conceal the agent. Whatever the reason, the action, and not the agent, is the focus. But somewhere along the line writing depts. began enforcing an “active is better” dogma–yet another example of what I’m talking about.

      Why is there such a big fuss made over all these writing no-nos? You can probably go to any literary great and find plenty of examples of split infinitives, sentences ended with prepositions, the passive voice, and, yes, telling not showing. It’s a function of the power structure of writing classrooms that instructors feel they must use these convenient and oversimplified formulae to enforce their authority by putting boundaries on burgeoning writers, many of whom might be better off to ignore them and thereby maintain their creative muse rather than try to fit into the cookie cutter fashions of the day. But then I suppose that would vitiate the need for writing programs.

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