Is “Show, Don’t Tell” Overrated?

James Scott Bell

There’s a meme developing regarding one of the oldest of fiction writing commandments: Show, don’t tell. Specifically, that this may be an overrated bit of advice. What’s wrong with telling (straight narration) a great deal of a story in the author’s voice? 
It’s worth talking about. 
Here is an excerpt from a thriller which begins in the trenches of WWI. After a descriptive opening paragraph that introduces us to the “cordite-clouded sky” and the lead character, Dr. William T. Majors, Jr., we get this:
A brilliant mathematician, Majors was a scholar and a gentlemen completely out of his affluent Long Island element. Against reasonable odds or definable logic, he was also a private in the U.S. Army and at present trapped in a gash of dangerous dirt between France and Germany known as the Western Front.
That is narrative telling, and set-up. Well, why not? It gets the job done, doesn’t it? 
But wouldn’t we rather be in the head of the character, and let the details become known naturally as we go along? Is there a need to explain all this up front? Does it deepen our involvement, distance it, or matter not at all?
I have a little guideline I call Act first, explain later. I have never read the opening of a published book yet that did not benefit from this guideline, or suffer from its non-use.
Side note: I was talking to a friend recently who is a voracious reader (and was a history major in college). I brought up a particularly popular series of historical novels and he went, “Ugh! It takes SO LONG to get going!” Then he mentioned the James Clavell classic, Shogun. “He gives a lot of background,” my friend said, “but he does it with action. I like that much better.” I try to listen to readers.
Back to the thriller. We are now introduced to a second character, Majors’ childhood friend, John Taylor. They enlisted together. They are in the trench, talking as the sky explodes. “Tell me again,” Taylor says, “what the hell we are doing here?”
Then this:
Both men were scared, though they tried not to show it.
They winced, recoiling again from the thundering bombardment now under way to destroy fortifications and trench systems along a twenty-mile front from Bois d’Avoncourt to Étan.
Okay, that is a pull back from a scene (when there’s dialogue, you’ve got a scene by default) to narrative description. The author is telling us what both men felt, so it’s author voice (and therefore Omniscient POV) by default.
Are we okay with that? Or would it not be better to stay within the POV of Majors, his hands shaking, the bile of fear rising in his throat? (Note: Omniscient POV is out of favor these days.)
A novel works best (even, I am tempted to add, only) when it creates emotion in the reader. One of the reasons for show, don’t tell is to do that very thing. And it ought to start happening on page one.
A few lines down (we’re on page 2 now), Majors has a tender moment:
Majors touched his heart, then pulled a photo of Jane from his tunic’s breast pocket. He could make out her features in the sudden glare of a bomb’s blast. He loved her deeply and felt this was probably his last chance to look upon her face.
More telling. But does He loved her deeply capture the feeling? Or would it have been better to showhis finger gently tracing her features as his heart pounds something that sounds like a dirge? Telling us what an emotion is, rather than creating it in us, wastes valuable front-end real estate in a book.
Now a page of backstory follows. It begins:
Even more than Taylor, Majors had been born and raised in privilege, with every advantage of wealth and sophistication his parents could give him. Majors’ father, the man he’d been named after, was a successful ship line attorney and investment banker. Majors’ French mother had always been a tender caregiver to her son. She was a consummate homemaker and devoted wife . . .
We have left the immediacy of the action and exploding sky for a discursive on background. Now, I believe some backstory is all right in an opening chapter. But I like to keep it brief and firmly grounded in a character’s head and emotions, e.g., He longed to be back in his father’s study, helping him research another brief for the shipping lines he represented, waiting for mother to bring the afternoon tea.
Is there ever a time to just “tell” part of the story? Yes, when you want to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time, e.g., from one location to another.
Otherwise, choose the more intimate way, one character’s immediate POV, and create emotions rather than telling us about them.
There’s even a book that will help you in this regard, Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions.
So what do you think? Is “show, don’t tell” overrated? Or is it the mark of the author who knows exactly how to pull readers in? 

26 thoughts on “Is “Show, Don’t Tell” Overrated?

  1. I bat for the “Show, Don’t Tell” team. While there are some few exceptional circumstances wherein it’s wiser to tell, showing serves much better to pull the reader in emotionally, which is what it’s all about. Usually, it requires a little thinking, a little brood time to engage the Muse, who will find a way to do it that doesn’t displease me: I’m a terribly critical reader.

    It’s harder to write, and I likes me my challenges.

    Side note, but an important one: James, thank you so much for writing “Plot and Structure” and “Stress and Conflict.” I’ve learned so much from each one that they are among the few writing books I have in both electronic and paper copies. I’m very grateful you’ve shared your wisdom with us.

  2. It took me a long time to understand how to show rater than tell, but I get it now and understand why the intimacy of showing most of the time is important. The example you used would, if I were reading this, drive me insane. I’d close the book and maybe give it to Good Will.

  3. Love this post, Jim, especially in light of Lee Child’s Writer’s Digest interview last week.

    I’m with Lorelei here – I found myself skimming the passages you used as examples with frustration right away.

    Studying Craft this year with Lynn Johnston and my RWA group, and reading Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure nails home the “Show,don’t Tell” premise – seems like you’ve brought that up a time or two yourself. 🙂

    Narrative told through a character’s eyes and emotions is the way to go.

    As a writer, finding that perfect balance transforms Craft into Art.

  4. The only way telling instead of showing works is if the author is the most gifted writer of words. If the author can bring tears to the readers eyes by his voice than maybe, just maybe, there is one in a thousand readers who will appreciate the lyrical telling of a story without losing interest.
    These days, that is a pretty low number of readers to write for and there is probably an even lower number of authors who can pull it off.
    I’d still rather feel like I am in the story instead of sitting on the couch being told the story.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  5. As you say, there is a time for getting from point A to point B quickly. The potential problem I see is that authors are so turned off to telling that they fail to see that they need to move quickly between two points.

  6. Jim, Excellent discussion. I try to balance “show” and “tell,” using dialogue where it sounds natural, employing telling where I need to go into more detail or get from one point to another quickly. In other words, “Do I favor show or tell?” I’d have to answer “Yes.”

  7. Victoria brings up the matter of voice and style, and it seems to me especially relevant to the use of First Person POV. The big temptation for a writer using First is to let the narrator “tell” a lot about backstory and so on. There may be a place for that (not at the beginning, IMO) and then it really is important to have that narrative voice be distinct and compelling on its own.

  8. I’ve always struggled with this in my own newbie writing. Then I found Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. Not only does she explain how to show and not tell, she has clear examples and practice sheets (with answers!) to help you really nail it down. I feel like it’s finally given me a handle on how to show and not tell.

  9. I’m for “Show, Don’t Tell” all the way!

    I personally think “Show Don’t Tell” is vastly misunderstood, which is why it’s coming under fire. A lot of writers treat it as though they just show the interesting bits, and just tell quickly in order to wrap up boring stuff.

    As you point out, it’s so much more than that. What would your POV character notice? What of their actions betray their feelings?

    Even when you dip into telling, I think this should reflect something about the character, so we never leave their POV. Instead of writing, “It started to rain.” you might write “Then the blasted sky opened up, and it started to pour.” It’s slightly more wordy, but it feels like an observation made by a person, not a narrator.

    The other issue with over telling is it feels too “on the nose” to me. Many times we think we’re angry about one thing, but it’s really something else that’s bothering us. If you show the feelings and let the readers decide for themselves why they are there, it gives your work a whole new layer.

    I like how you brought up first person POV being somewhat guilty of over telling. It’s really easy to just let the 1st person narrator just sit down and spin you a yarn (at least, for me it is) but there’s plenty of times you need actual scenes.

    An interesting example is “Sunshine” by Robin McKinely. Don’t get me wrong–I absolutely love this book and author, but a very large percentage of the book is simply the main character telling us about stuff. McKinely’s style and voice manages to make this extremely interesting, but it’s tiring after a while.

    Great topic, as always!

  10. I’ve read posts by many new writers who were confused by this writing commandment. They say they’ve been told to “show” don’t “tell” and it leaves them wondering what this means, especially when there has been no elaboration or few examples.

    So they post a new thread in a writers forum asking this very question. It’s over rated at times because many who advise it, do not really explain it in detail.

    Critique Person: Show, don’t tell.

    Newbie Writer: You’re telling me. Why don’t you SHOW me what you mean?


    Great examples, Bell!

  11. Yes, it’s the difference between hot and warm, fresh and left-out-overnight. Readers don’t overtly notice these things, but they feel them.

    If I was running a movie theater and served pre-popped popcorn out of a bag, it would do the job. People wouldn’t really “notice.” But If I fresh popped it, in oil, the movie going experience would be that much better.

    Why not choose the better, is what I’m saying.

  12. The concepts of both show and tell are brilliantly used by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

    The odd chapters are pure omni POV:

    “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover.”

    The even chapters, pop right into action mode (with a bit of expository because this is, after all, Steinbeck): “When Joad heard the truck get under way, gear climbing up to gear and the ground throbbing under the rubber beating of the tires, he stopped and watched it until it disappeared.”

    And when you’re Steinbeck you can open a classic by telling me about the weather. If you’re not Steinbeck, I expect you to try just a bit harder . . .

    Tell is easy. Telling well is hard. Showing is harder.


  13. Rules are made for breaking, but one has to know them intimately before one can break them.

    It’s also true that some rules enjoy being fashionable for a time, until a popular writer changes the fashion.

    If you tell too much and show too little a writer misses the opportunity to add depth to a work, but as for ‘telling’, I say never say never unless you wish to discard a (sometimes useful) tool.

  14. Karl, thanks for weighing in. Surely you don’t mean TOTALLY without merit? All due respect to John Grisham (and that’s not just hot air, as Grisham deserves every thriller writer’s props) if the first chapter of The Litigators had been in a proposal, 95% of the agents and editors would have summarily dismissed it. I found it a tough slog. Would I continue? Yes, for one reason only: It’s John Grisham. I know I’m in good hands. He’s earned my trust.

    But I would, without hesitation, tell a new writer (in this case) to throw out Ch. 1 and begin with Ch. 2, which begins with a character and a scene.

  15. When I read telling and a dump of backstory, I shut the book and go on to the next author. And I don’t pick up another book by that author. If I’m that picky, what about other readers?

  16. Jay, a couple of things. First, I only read the opening chapters, and the rest of the book may be splendid. Second, it’s not like the opening was horrible. My point was it could have been better. Finally, I do not want to hurt the book in the marketplace because, again, I haven’t read it all, and I just don’t like to do that to a fellow author.

  17. “Show, don’t tell” is good advice. But like most advice, you must use some judgement. And you must consider the skill (and reputation) of the writer. For most writers without the reputation of Grisham, and without the skill of … say, James Scott Bell, Show Don’t Tell is, in general, a good path to follow – IMO.

  18. James, thanks for the good word….and yes, as has been said here several times, if you KNOW why you’re doing it, it can work, IF you can pull it off. But still, in the opening chapters especially, when you’re just setting out on this crazy journey, get the story moving and keep the POV “hot.” That will NEVER hurt you.

  19. It’s so easy for me to get into narrative and skip the “showing” part of the story. Then, I have to go back and tell the story from the character’s perspective. It makes for a richer experience for the reader.

    Thanks for the reminder, John. My writing group helps keep me honest in this regard, too.

  20. This advice is prolly the main reason I love The Emotion Thesaurus so much. But there are a lot of critiques I’ve seen where someone says “show, don’t tell” without even knowing what it means. It’s a common-place phrase and so is offered as advice even when it’s unnecessary. It confuses a lot of writers because it’s rarely explained.

  21. By the way, I know your usage of the word “meme” is technically correct, but when people say it on the internet they usually mean something along the lines of LOLcatz. It’s a little misleading.

  22. James, right now I am working on the first two books of a science fiction series to be released self pub this fall. Now most of the scenes are written from the point of view of a character, but some of the complicated battle scenes, which might span dozens of vessels over billions of cubic kilometers releasing missiles that get up to relativistic speeds, involves a lot of description and telling. Unless I want to make the damned missile a character, or just show viewpoint characters looking at screens and commenting to each other about how this ship is about to be overwhelmed, then I have to more or less narrate. It worked for Poul Anderson in his stories, and Larry Niven in some, and definitely for David Weber in his later Harrington books, which involved battles with hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of missiles. Wonder what your thoughts are on what seems to be a specialized setting for military novels, from the Roman era to thousands of years in the future.

  23. It’s not a rule, it’s a custom. There are no rulers in writing, so there are no rules. Only follow customs when you are target marketing a pre-existing audience rather than letting a work find its own audience.

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