Show & Tell – When It’s Appropriate

We’ve all heard that mantra of, “show, don’t tell”, but I honestly don’t think a lot of people know what that really means.  As I’ve thought back on it, I don’t remember anyone actually explaining in depth what it really means, and because of that a lot of people just treat it as “never do this ever because it’s bad”.  But here’s a bold, innovative new concept for you: telling is good and often necessary.

The problem with people telling you how to write (aside from the fact that they’re telling you how to write while also saying there’s no one right way) is that they will often say things like this.  “Show, don’t tell.”  Why not?  You might get a vague answer if you’re lucky, but it’s not really going to be all that satisfactory.  Ironically they don’t follow their own advice, because the best way to teach a person why you shouldn’t do this thing is by showing them rather than telling them not to.  People teaching writing seem to do this a lot, though.  They just tell you that something is bad and therefore you should never do it, when what they really mean is: this thing is hard to pull off well and a lot of people end up doing it badly, so it probably would be best to stay away from it until you’re better at writing in general.

That really is the key to most things which are seen as “bad” in writing.  “Don’t do this, people do it poorly and you will too!”  But the thing is, almost every single thing that is seen as “bad” is only bad because a majority of the time people do it badly.  That doesn’t mean it is bad in and of itself, it just means you need to learn how to implement it well.  But this post is about telling, specifically, so I’ll get on to that.

First off, what exactly does “show, don’t tell” mean?  Does it mean you are never allowed to tell your readers anything through narrative or dialogue and every bit of information you want to relay has to be done through description?  No.  That seems to be what most people think, but I don’t believe that’s the case, myself.  Usually, from what I’ve observed, when people say “show, don’t tell”, they often mean it in a very specific context, not as a general statement.  I think showing works better for certain things, like building atmosphere or trying to convey certain feelings or sensory information.  You can’t really get a spine-tingling effect by just saying “I saw a huge dragon and it scared me so I ran away”.  (Poor example but you get the picture).  That is telling.  Showing, in that instance, would be going into detail about what the thing the character is afraid of looked like, sounded like, smelled like, etc.  And then you go into detail about everything the character was feeling before they ran away.

So, show don’t tell doesn’t seem like bad advice there, right?  But then people take it too far and get into things like narrative exposition.  A lot of books will start out with a bit of exposition, telling about the main character and their life and what it’s like, so you can get some idea of what it’s like before the rest of the story takes hold (because usually at that point their life is going to be changing somehow).  I find people getting upset over that type of telling a lot and saying how it’s bad and you should be “showing” this information.  Yes, it’s possible to show that kind of information, but depending on the type of story, exposition (telling) is actually a better way to convey that information than showing it is.  Why?  Because showing that kind of information will often take a longer amount of time and, if this information is necessary for us to understand what’s happening, but not to the point that we have to dwell on it for long periods of time, showing that information is just going to bog the story down and make it boring.

Dialogue exposition is a thing as well, though more often than not, for some reason, I find people are actually telling me I should use that more often than prose/narrative exposition because I guess they think that isn’t telling as much, even though dialogue exposition is often the lower form of telling that you should avoid.  In this case, if you don’t know how to figure out if it’s good or not to let the characters be telling us this stuff, just ask yourself whether or not they would really need to be saying this stuff.  Shouldn’t they already know this?  So why are they telling us this?  If it’s for nothing else but the audience’s convenience, then there is probably a much better way to convey the information, either through narrative, or more likely through showing in some way.

Show don’t tell is good advice, but it shouldn’t be applied to everything you write.  Telling is okay and necessary in many instances, and there is nothing truly wrong with it.  You just have to know the right amount to use and when to use it.  This is true for all technical aspects of writing.  Everything works in moderation.  So just because someone told you that something is bad and you shouldn’t use it, it doesn’t mean that it is always bad and you should never use it.  You just have to know how to implement it so it does work.  And that, my friends, is the secret to writing well.


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