Show Don’t Tell

Show don’t tell. As writers, we’ve all encountered this advice at some point in our careers. We’re told that stories should allow readers to discover and experience the worlds we create alongside our characters, but is there ever a time when telling triumphs over showing?

When Zero to Hero challenged me to post in a manner I’d never used before, my first thought was to post a quote (actually it was: ‘what do you mean “post in a new-to-you format”? Why do you always insist on making me think? Don’t you know I have a novel to edit?’). I was working on a post about show don’t tell at the time and sharing Mark Twain’s comment seemed fitting.

In it, Twain references the adjective/adverb (yes, it can be either) ‘very’ but could easily have substituted any adjective. Under the advice of show don’t tell, these words are pure exposition. But exposition does have its place in narrative. There are times when it’s necessary to move the story along at a speed greater than ‘showing’ allows, especially in epic tales with events spanning decades, even centuries. The trick is to use ‘telling’ sparingly.

Telling becomes immeasurably useful during our first drafts (the ones that no one but you will ever read) when your only goal is to get the story out of your head and onto the page. I used to be notorious for getting hung-up on wording, often editing out as much ‘telling’ as possible as I went…then I’d stall; that perfect next sentence had vanished from my brain. Now, when I draft I don’t read, if what ends up on the paper is exposition, I rewrite during the edits.

We human beings are both creative and analytical creatures but seldom at the same time: be creative first, you can’t analyse what isn’t there and if ‘telling’ keeps the story going, use it.

It’s true, there is a time and a place for ‘telling’. If a reader, when opening a book, is confronted with page after page of explanation surrounding the world’s political systems and history, they grow bored, eventually giving up on the story. However, if introduced to it gradually, or through changing formats, exposition feels more of an experience, especially when that information is imparted to characters at the same time. Likewise, passages of slow-paced exposition in the middle of fast-paced action scenes, can bring the whole book to a screeching halt and bring the reader crashing back to reality.

There is a need to find balance between showing and telling and not to rely on one more than the other. Telling, when used correctly, can smooth the flow of a story and, when used alongside showing, can vary the pace of your book to maximum effect. It can transport you great distances in the blink of an eye or even control the passage of time. My advice would be to use it, but use it wisely.

6 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell

      1. They were self-published but acquired a loyal fanbase. After a lot of fan support and prompting, we (my illustrator and I) released a short series (10 issues) before going on to explore other projects. I may still go back to it at some point.

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