“Show, Don’t Tell?” more like “Go, To Hell” send tweet

If you want to get punched in the throat by me, a great way to accomplish this is to tell me that a piece of my writing needs to “show, not tell.” Hell, I’ll punch you in the throat if you say that about someone else’s writing in front of me. Actually, maybe I have an anger problem that needs addressing but THAT IS NOT WHY I AM WRITING THIS POST. I am writing this post because every time I hear somebody parrot this dank linguistic meme as a substitute for having an actual considered opinion about a piece of writing it spikes my blood pressure, and my doctor says I need to keep an eye on that, and I’m not going to cut back on salt so this is what I’m doing about it.

Part of the problem with “show don’t tell” as a piece of writing advice is that nobody’s super clear on what “showing” or “telling” actually are, so let’s start by knocking together a definition. I want to be fair about this, so let’s start with a quote from someone who epitomizes the style that “show don’t tell” champions: Mister Earnest “Bigdick Rhinokiller” Hemingway:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

In other words, if you’re clever about it, you can lead your reader to understand the facts of the story without straight up saying what you mean. That gives us a pretty good working definition: “showing” means communicating things to your reader via indirect implication. “Telling” is the opposite: directly stating whatever it is you want your reader to know. “Show, don’t tell” implies that one of these things (showing) is good, and the other one (telling) is bad. Oops, I just told you what it means. Fuck me, I guess.

Now look, I get that teaching writing is hard. Ideally it requires a careful analysis of what is and isn’t working in an individual’s work, an understanding of their intentions, guided reading of relevant authors, and a buttload of practice. In the face of all that, I understand the temptation of a hard and fast, one-size-fits-all rule like “show, don’t tell.” But it seems to me that anyone who seriously champions this literary rule must not have read very much literature. Let’s take, for example, the first line of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Everyone agrees that this line whips. But there’s not much left to the imagination, is there? Tolstoy just comes straight out and tells us a clever thought he had about families. So clearly some good writers get away with using telling to begin their novels. But surely it’s always better to begin a novel by showing, right? Uh oh:

“Mr. Jack Hyde… he smiles down at me, his blue eyes twinkling, as he leans against my desk. ‘Excellent work, Ana. I think we’re going to make a great team.’”

This is the first line of E.L. James’ seminal work, Fifty Shades Darker. Note the provocative use of ellipses, and the author’s admirable restraint in not mentioning Mr. Hyde’s massive boner. Personally, I find this sentence to be cloying, overwritten, and cliched. It’s certainly no Anna Karenina.

Now, maybe it’s unfair to compare a revered work of literature with the second book in a softcore porn saga. But I’m not arguing that all telling is good and that all showing is bad. All I’m trying to prove is that it’s possible to do amazing things with telling, and to do less than great things with showing. I think it’s also clear from these examples that the two techniques have wildly different uses (although maybe it’s not clear exactly what those uses are yet).

This is the nuance that gets lost in the clickbait blog posts that promise you One Weird Trick That Will Change Your Writing Forever. These posts usually contain an “example sentence” that is meant to represent telling, like:

He was very sad.

And then they “rewrite it” into something “better” like:

He sniffled, and wiped at one red-rimmed eye with his sleeve.

SEE?? ISN’T THAT BETTER? MAKE SURE TO LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE! Except… there’s no way to actually know which sentence is better without reading the rest of the story it’s a part of. Maybe you like the second one better because it’s got more “flavor” or whatever, but most stories are not one sentence. Most stories are made out of several sentences, and each sentence contributes to the whole. And guess what? EVERY story uses at least SOME telling, because you can’t tell a story with just vibes.

A better way to explore showing versus telling is to look at actual examples of showing and telling – ideally one of each, from the same author – so that we can figure out what each technique accomplishes in practice. I’m going to use Borges, because pretty much every single one of his stories is about a labyrinth of some sort, which gives us a nice point of comparison. Let’s compare two of his labyrinths: the one described in “The House of Asterion,” and the one described in “The Library of Babel.”

First, an excerpt from “The House of Asterion.” (If you’re not familiar with the story, the narrator is the legendary Minotaur. Whoops, spoilers.)

Of course, I am not without distractions. Like the ram about to charge, I run through the stone galleries until I fall dizzy to the floor. I crouch in the shadow of a pool or around a corner and pretend I am being followed. There are roofs from which I let myself fall until I am bloody. … But of all the games, I prefer the one about the other Asterion. I pretend that he comes to visit me and that I show him my house. With great obeisance I say to him “Now we shall return to the first intersection” or “Now we shall come out into another courtyard” Or “I knew you would like the drain” or “Now you will see a pool that was filled with sand” or “You will soon see how the cellar branches out”.”

This is a pretty classic example of showing. The narrator (Asterion) never once calls his home a labyrinth (In most of his stories, Borges can’t use that word enough). Instead, the labyrinth is implied through action, dialogue, and sensory detail. The result is an eerie feeling of being trapped in the labyrinth with the unlucky Asterion, seeing his home as he sees it. Hemingway would be proud.

Now let’s look at “The Library of Babel”:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries … The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides … each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters”

Immediately we can see the difference between the two descriptions. The labyrinth in “Asterion” is dark, twisting and confused, seen as it is through the eyes of the person trapped in it. The Library of Babel is no less baffling, but its strangeness comes from the unearthly clarity and scope of its design, rather than the visceral experience of being trapped inside. You can almost see Borges setting up the wide shot in this passage, giving us a bird’s eye view of the entire impossible library at once. The description of the Library is so clear, in fact, that some cunning computer programmers were actually able to faithfully create a digital version of it. Both stories are terrifying in their own way, but Asterion’s labyrinth is terrifying in a personal way, while the Library of Babel is terrifying in a cosmic horror sort of way.

So showing is great at creating empathy – Asterion’s description immediately puts us in the labyrinth with him – while telling excels at creating clarity. This is especially useful when describing big things – big concepts, as well as things that are physically big (the Library of Babel happens to be both). Telling won’t necessarily give the reader a feeling of how big a thing is (that’s what showing is for), but it can allow them to imagine the entire big thing at once.

That bigness and distance is sometimes weaponized against telling. I’ve heard it said that showing is better because it’s more immersive, and thus more capable of evoking strong emotion. While it’s true that showing is more immersive (because it places the reader directly within the world of the story) immersion is not the only way to evoke strong emotion. Like, have you read the end of the original Grimm’s version of the Cinderella story? It goes like this:

On the way to church the elder was on the right side of the bridal couple and the younger on the left. The doves came along and pecked out one of the elder sister’s eyes and one of the younger sister’s eyes. Afterward, on the way out, the elder was on the left side and the younger on the right, and the doves pecked out both the remaining eyes. So both sisters were punished with blindness to the end of their days for being so wicked and false.

I don’t know about you, but I find the above description chilling specifically because of the distance and precision with which it’s described. I don’t need to see the eyeball goo, or hear the screams. The calm, direct language of the passage makes me feel like I’m having one of those fucked up nightmares where I’m at the grocery store and I discover I no longer have teeth. If that’s the effect you’re trying to achieve, this is a way to achieve it.

There’s another interesting thing about Grimm’s fairytales in this context: all of them are transcriptions of stories told by unknown storytellers throughout Germany. See what I did there? “Tellers”? “Telling”? God, I’m so clever. When a story is told aloud, it’s impossible to ignore the storyteller. They’re right there in front of you. When you’re reading a story, on the other hand, it can be easy to forget who’s telling it. That’s part of what we refer to as immersion in literature. It’s another compelling use for showing. If you want to remind the reader who’s telling the story, though… well… telling is good for that. Here’s an example from all-timer T.H. White’s The Once and Future King:

“’Couldn’t send them to Eton, I suppose?’ Inquired sir Grummore cautiously. ‘Long way and all that, we know.’

It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same sort. Also they were drinking Metheglyn, not port, but by mentioning the modern wine it is easier to give you the feel.”

This is not the only way that T. H. White could have written this passage. He could have simply replaced “Eton” with the name of a historically appropriate college. He could have used “Eton” and not commented on it, thus achieving the same effect he’s describing in the next paragraph without having to stop and tell us what he’s doing. Instead, White chooses to explicitly give us this information, and let us know what a huge solid he’s doing us. He doesn’t open the second paragraph with “Hey, listen, T. H. White here to give you some historical context,” but we understand that it’s him talking anyway, because who else would it be?

By coming out and addressing us directly like this (on the second page of his book, no less), White is already starting to build a personal relationship with the reader. He’s telling us, “Hey, I know the historical context of the Arthurian legend is pretty dense, but don’t worry – I’ve got this covered.”

So while showing is immersive because it helps us forget we’re reading a story – by removing the barrier between us and the events of the story – telling is immersive because it helps us forget we’re reading – by removing the barrier between us and the storyteller. Both are powerful techniques, because both exploit the relationship between reader and writer. Showing gives us the details and relies on us to infer the broader facts. Telling gives us the broad facts and relies on our imaginations to embroider the little details. 

Get you a reader who can do both.

3 thoughts on ““Show, Don’t Tell?” more like “Go, To Hell” send tweet

  1. Thank you for this impressively clear explanation of why both showing and telling can be useful in writing. You didn’t address it, but I’m curious: I’ve actually heard “show, don’t tell” more often levelled as a criticism of video than writing, do you have an opinion on whether that’s a more valid rule of thumb for movies/TV than for writing or not?

    • That’s a really good question! I don’t know nearly as much about film as I do about prose, but I have some guesses. For one thing, I think it’s natural for film to be much more balanced in favor of showing, since it’s a visual medium. Film also benefits from being able to show multiple things in the same frame simultaneously, as opposed to text, which is necessarily a linear medium unless you’re doing something zany like House of Leaves.

      That said, some films do still leverage voiceover or on-screen titles to dispense with a big chunk of exposition quickly in order to get back to the action. Think of Kill Bill, or the titles that appear on screen whenever a new character is introduced in a Guy Ritchie movie. These devices serve some of the same purposes I was describing in the post: they explicitly show the filmmaker’s hand and style, and they prioritize clarity over immersion.

  2. Thank you! I also have always disliked hearing ‘show don’t tell’ as a criticism, because it’s such a thought-terminating cliche. Like, yes, every single writer ever has already heard that advice. And yet it’s always delivered with such gravitas, as if imparting wisdom from on high, that the only allowable response is to sagely nod and say, “I see.”

    I prefer your response.

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