Show Don't Tell Series, The Foul

Why ‘Show Don’t Tell’ is a Load of Sh*t and Will Only Take You So Far. Part 1

We have all heard it a million times before….

Teachers and bloggers drone on and on about it, Editor’s like me, plaster it over your manuscripts until you can no longer see the typed words on the page, and in your dreams you run from serial killers wielding knives, screaming “Show me! Show me!” Then you wake in a puddle and drag your sorry ass to the bathroom to clean up before your spouse rolls over and sees what you’ve done!

But it’s a load of shit, and here is why….

A) Writers have heard it so often it has become meaningless. Passing through one ear and out the other…or in your eyes and out your…butt?

B) “Teachers” (bloggers, fellow writers, infographics) are sometimes confused on what ‘show don’t tell’ really means, and most of the time know only as much (if that) as the writers they are trying to help.

C) ‘Show don’t tell’ is a blanket term used to cover a multitude of writing issues.

D) It’s a one size fits all solution to a symptom of a problem but does not address the causes (note plural) of the problem.

If “show don’t tell” is so off the mark, why are we still using it?

Simple. It’s easy, it’s direct, and it sounds good. I blame editors to be honest. I have used the term so often; sometimes I just type it by accident it’s such an ingrained habit.

Show don’t tell, show me, show show show (oops there I go again).

But I am also the first one to admit that I write it on manuscripts for the convenience of it rather than the effectiveness of the advice—also because it is so common I do not need to explain myself over and over again in each context. And for that, I am truly ashamed.

Show vs. Tell doesn’t exist. (At least not in the way you’ve been told)

Would you like that…to never worry about whether you are telling or showing ever again?

I know I would.

But no matter how much we have been told to “show don’t tell,” we’re still not doing it. Not every time we should. Sure, many nail ‘show don’t tell’ on the head, but those who do not greatly overpopulate the ones who do. Even the veterans commit “tell” mistakes … over, and over, and over.

It’s because for the most part, showing a story instead of telling a story goes against our natural storytelling instincts.  In fact, it is something that has only become popular in the last century since film and television have made their debuts. Read any classic novel, and you are lucky to find any show. Not to say that these novels are bad…quite the opposite. And just because you tell instead of show does not mean that your story is inherently awful…

…just written for a different audience…

…one that’s dead.

And we aren’t even gonna get started on writing to your audience in this post. The second most popular advice for fiction writers.

So how come writers are struggling with a simple technique that every single writer knows? Why aren’t we all showing successfully in everything we write?

Because the advice is bullshit. Well-meaning? Sure. But well-meaning bullshit.

In the remainder of this series, I am going to break the problem down old school. And the first step is destroying everything you have previously learned.

Tell me if any of this ‘show don’t tell’ advice sounds familiar.

  1. Use lots of dialogue. Dialogue is automatically showing.
  2. Describe using all the senses (touch, taste, sight, sound, smell).
  3. Use unique descriptions and avoid weak descriptors (tall, quick, small).
  4. Get rid of adjectives and adverbs.
  5. Add metaphors and similes.
  6. Be specific.
  7. Beware stating emotions (has was mad, she screamed in sorrow, etc.).
  8. Overdoing ‘show’ will destroy the pace of your story and make it boring or wordy.

But what you are perhaps not aware of his how vague this advice really is and how it should be applied differently in different contexts.

Dialogue does not always show, it only acts to keep the reader in immediate scene (scenes that are unfolding in real time. We are experiencing them as they happen to the characters.) It is showing in a sense but not in the ways you may think it is.

Unique descriptions/descriptors, lack of adjectives and adverbs do not mean you are showing or telling. Metaphors are great but can let you down, being specific can backfire and become droning. And you can never state a single emotion directly and still fail miserably. And the last piece of advice there makes me cringe.

You CANNOT overdo ‘show.’ If your story has pacing issues or feels wordy, you’re not doing something right. You are either trying to explain every little thing that is not relevant to the plot, you think showing means giving a play by play of your character’s movements, you think describing clearer means describing more, or you have been so focused on “showing” (whatever you think that means) that you have forgotten about the pace of your story, or are being careless about how it reads. Later we will cover how deliberate pacing is actually part of showing…more on that another day though.

Sure the common advice can and will help, but it will never get you beyond a certain level of writing. For that, we need to start breaking down our writing on a more conscious level.

But first…

What is the general-consensus meaning of show don’t tell?

Show, don’t tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text.”

Good ole Wikipedia.

When your editor writes ‘Show!’ on your manuscript, this is what they mean. You are telling us the emotion/description/etc. rather than using better words to show, or allow us to feel, the story.

So why do I take issue with this definition? Because it is a symptom of the problem, not the cause of the problem. And this problem has MANY causes, and just as many solutions. To me, it is akin to every doctor in the old west prescribing laxatives for any ailment, regardless of what caused it. Or writing “evil in the bladder” under “cause of death” on a death certificate.

It’s the editing bandaid we put on every problematic phrase that doesn’t create a sufficient image for us. I’m as guilty of this as any other editor, and yet I’m surprised when the writer struggles to fix the problem.

But we just said something crucial: “Doesn’t create a sufficient image.”

‘So show don’t tell’ can really be boiled down to how to create an image.

I’m gonna say it again because it is important. IMAGE.

Show is creating an image—an experience.

However, image in fiction writing doesn’t mean what it does when we are talking about eyesight.

Imagery covers all the senses—the physical, the emotional, the psychological, and even the sometimes the spiritual. So simply including the five physical senses into your descriptions is not going to cut it in create a real show ‘experience.’

So how can we, as writers, create a story that manipulates the readers experience on ALL the many levels above?

We have to “show” on many levels as well.

5 actually.

Showing doesn’t start at the writing stage, but involves decisions you make from the very beginning that allow you to ‘build up’ your ‘show.’

Confused yet?

Simply put…

Show happens on many levels in your writing – starting with the most general and ending at the very specific.

On the first level, you have your POV which will dictate the direction of the ‘show don’t tell’ choices you make on the next level. The components of fiction writing.

These have been around for a long time under many names and guises, starting with narrative summary, which has been around for…ever, and was once and still is, to some extent, a form of writing in itself (along side poetry, and memoir, etc.). Now, however, we think of narrative summary as the summation of events in a plot, rather than the immediate unfolding of them—immediate scene. Immediate scene happens right before our eyes. Then there is description. Description exists both inside immediate scene and narrative summary, but also apart from both. It is what it sounds like—the describing of a setting or concept, outside the frame of plot and events, but information that is necessary to tell the story. This can include history, places, background info, etc.

Upon the components of fiction, ‘show’ is also created through the narrative type decisions made at any given point. These are dialogue, inner dialogue, exposition, or dramatic action. But I am also going to put pacing and rhythm in with narrative types because these 2 things should be a major factor in which one you choose and when.  Depending on what POV is used, and whether in immediate scene/narrative summary, etc., will also dictate how you can use these types to help ‘show.’

Levels of show
My crappy-made pyramid of the levels of showing.

Above the narrative type level of show are literary devices. These include metaphors and similes but are by no means limited to them. There are so many literary devices out there for authors; they have almost endless opportunities to make unique, exciting, prose that reeks of show. And they barely have to graze the surface.

The last level of show is word choice. And this is what the majority of ‘show don’t tell’ advice is limited to. And believe me, it is limited. There is only so much an author can do at this level to take a telling story and turn it into a showing one. Because they missed most of their opportunities to show long before getting to this stage. That is why I said at the beginning of this post that traditional ‘show don’t tell’ advice will only get writers so far.

The rest of this series will help you go that extra mile. We will discuss each one of the levels of show at length, and hopefully, by the end, you will have a different perspective of an old problem.

Next week we go into the foundation, with how POV will dictate the ‘show’ decisions you make for the rest of the writing process and the nuances that come with each type of POV.

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