The tyranny of show don’t tell

I’m so constrained by the show don’t tell writing commandment these days it feels like working with a straightjacket on. For those not familiar with the concept, it is deemed to be the hallmark of good writing that the author shows you what emotion or dynamic is at play (through dialogue, body language, behaviour, surroundings) rather than telling you. Telling it straight is like burning a church (incidentally, my grandmother once told me that mashing new potatoes – I was going through a mashing everything phase – was like ‘burning a church’ and I’ve since discovered that this was something of an exaggeration and in fact no charge of sacrilege can be brought connected to potatoes).

At the risk of stretching the point a little, may I present:

The Climax of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, shown not told (translation in brackets).

Goldilocks was woken by the sound of heavy footsteps, the scrape of claw on wood. Through half-closed eyes she noticed large shapes blocking out the light. Her hands flew to her throat, which filled with a silent scream, when she realised she was in the presence of three bears.

(Goldilocks woke with a start when the three bears came into the baby bear’s room. She was desperately frightened at the sight of the bears.)

“Someone has been sleeping in my bed,” said the smallest bear, jumping up and down, his voice unnaturally high, “and here she is!”

(“Someone has been sleeping in my bed,” said the baby bear, full of excitement, “and here she is!”)

Goldilocks leapt out of the bed, climbed out the window and ran away, the muscles in her little legs aching as her feet pounded a rapid rhythm on the forest floor.

(Goldilocks jumped out of the bed, climbed out the window and ran away as fast as her little legs could carry her.)

God it’s exhausting!

9 thoughts on “The tyranny of show don’t tell

  1. I’m sooo happy you’ve dared to complain about this tyrannical rule. “Show don’t tell” is a worthwhile reminder, but sometimes a little narrative simplifies things and moves the story along.

  2. I only follow this rule when it helps me not to forget that I have to convince the reader (and discipline myself) with facts or numbers instead of telling by words that are relative, opinionated and judgmental. I think it’s all the more fun, to forget about it from time to time to have a proper rant.

  3. Another writer once told me that ‘telling’ is fine so long as it is dramatic! Personally, I can’t stand the kind of ‘showing’ which smacks of second-rate ‘romantic’ novels, eg, ‘beads of sweat glistened on Jessica’s brow. She placed her left hand on her chest and reached her now trembling right hand towards the glass of iced water …’ Maybe my effort is third-rate 🙂

    1. No it’s perfect, you should switch genres 😉 There’s no getting away from ‘trembling hands’I reckon, it’s such a great all rounder (she wrote, her hands trembling as she typed).

  4. Hi Clare. Surely one of the beautiful things about writing fiction is being able to tell rather than show? When making films I think the principle of showing rather than telling makes perfect sense – it’s a visual medium after all, and if you are telling then it often means that the visual storytelling isn’t working. And a single image is often more powerful than a ream of dialogue or voiceover.

    But in a book? The narrator’s voice can be the most appealing thing. Subtle insights into psychology, relationships and emotional states, are often more elegantly told than shown. So cast off the tyrannical hand of the screenwriting guru and embrace the art of telling. Maybe showing is just for picture books? Catch you around soon I hope.

    1. Hi Luke,
      Nice to hear an opinion from the world of film. Believe it or not show/tell ‘rules’ do apply in writing fiction as well but obviously not to the same extent as in visual storytelling. It seems people are not supposed to say something ‘with suppressed rage’. We’re meant to get that across in some other way. Maybe the speaker snaps a pencil in two under the table or some such nonsense. It gets a bit tedious. But when it comes to the internal voice, there’s plenty of latitude, thankfully.
      I’ll have a snoop at your twitter timeline to see what you’re up to these days. DM me if you like.

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