Bad Advice Boogie: Show, Don’t Tell

One piece of advice that seems good but can do a lot of harm is the old classic "show, don't tell." Jeff Somers explains why.
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[Meet Jeff Somers and hear him speak at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference, August 10-12, 2018!]

I like to walk a lot. It’s basically the only exercise I get, and on many days it’s the only time I leave the house, leaving the house being severely overrated as an activity 

[1]

. Of course, no one else in this godforsaken world likes to walk just for the sheer joy of it, so I’m often the only person on the street, being stared at with a combination of pity and horror (to be fair this might also be due to my habit of forgetting to put on trousers before leaving the house)—and it also means I get asked for directions a lot 

[2]

.

Which is a mistake, because I’m terrible at giving directions, and what always happens is that I realize about five seconds after giving out directions that I’m completely, 100% wrong and the poor souls I just spoke to will be lost forever [3].

Show Me the Telling

This is also how I feel about giving out writing advice, which is unfortunate since I have an entire book about writing advice out on sale [4]. I always feel very confident in the moment, telling people the Somers Way of Writing, but then that night, lying in bed with a glass of whiskey balanced on my chest and five cats draped over me as if I were some sort of barbarian king from a past age, I have regrets. Because what works for me may not work for you, and sometimes writing techniques or tricks that work every time really only work because of sheer dumb luck or confirmation bias [5]. So I lay there and I worry that I’ve just ruined someone, that someday I’ll be kidnapped and set to solving a series of murder puzzles by a madwoman in a mask who will eventually reveal that she’s torture-murdering me because I once gave her some epically terrible writing advice [6].

For an example of writing advice that feels really great in the moment but ages terribly, let’s look at Show Don’t Tell.

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As with all writing advice, it seems harmlessly brilliant. Telling, we’re, um, told is when you simply state things for the reader, a recitation of facts and events. Showing is when you present those facts more artistically, inviting the reader to interpret and understand as opposed to simply absorbing information. Telling is lazy, Showing takes talent. And in general this is all true—don’t tell me that someone who’s committed a murder and hidden the body under the floorboards is going crazy due to his buried guilt, have him hear the beat of the Tell-Tale Heart and come unraveled right before our eyes.

Yes! As usual, the problem with Show Don’t Tell isn’t that it’s inherently bad advice—it’s that people understand it to mean you can never tell the reader anything, and that’s simply not true.

Living Comfort Eagle

Many times, writers go ham on Show Don’t Tell and start showing us everything, resulting in a lot of verbiage to convey some very basic stuff. Let’s say you want to let the reader know that the main character is tired. You could, of course, just tell us

“Mary felt tired, and longed for a nap.” [7]

 Writing Without Rules

Writing Without Rules

Or, you could spend 500 words on Mary’s physical and mental state of being, slowly shading in the fact that she’s utterly exhausted and having her think dreamily of her bed at home, the soft pillows, the sense of peace. You could expound on weariness as a human state of existence, research sleep and skillfully edge those statistics and myth-busting into the prose, and before you know it you’ve written an entire chapter about how sleepy Mary is without ever saying it explicitly! Unfortunately, your reader also fell asleep some pages back and likely won’t return. [8]

[Bad Advice Boogie: Write What You Know]

The other mistake writers make with Show Don’t Tell is the belief that they must lead the reader to every detail they think important and hold it up to them for a moment, nodding meaningfully, to ensure that they ‛get’ every important little thing. God forbid they have their main character actually notice something and think explicitly about its importance.

The thing is, sometimes showing is better. Sometimes telling is better[9]. Sometimes you’ll need to do both things at once—tell the reader something, but at the same time show them something else as a result. It gets trickier and murkier and harder to explain as you go deeper, which is always the real problem with advice like this—at the highest, most superficial level, avoiding telling in favor of showing is effective. The more subtle you become as a writer, the more gray areas you’ll encounter, and trying to apply a ‛rule’ like that in a brutal, simplistic way will actually make you a worse writer.

In other words, mastering your craft often involves knowing the rules so you can break them with impunity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my secret training to defeat and escape from Murder Puzzles.

[1] Also, I am cruelly taunted by the neighborhood youths whenever I leave the house.

[2] Which is surprising; in just about every other arena of my life, my naturally dopey expression and unfortunate fashion sense means I’m usually the *last* person anyone wants to ask a question.

[3] It also means I spend the rest of the day hiding.

[4] My ingenious marketing plan of mocking my own expertise at all times will surely drive sales of my book based on my supposed expertise through the roof! It can’t fail!

[5] “Sheer Dumb Luck” is in the running for title of my memoir.

[6] Although the precise reasons behind it may surprise me, I’m 100% certain my cause of death *will* be listed as Murder Puzzle Fail.

[7] Something else to consider is that if you just go ahead and tell us everything, your book will turn out to be 7,000 words long.

[8] Although you could argue that making readers fall asleep by describing sleep is some kind of superpower. If you can translate that into making readers mail you $100 bills just by describing it, we’re onto something.

[9] If this sort of uncertainty is annoying to you, you’ve just hit on the reason short, pithy advice like “show, don’t tell” is so popular: People hate ambiguity.

Learn more from Jeff Somers at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference,

August 10-12, 2018!

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Online Course: Advanced Novel Writing

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