Show-Don’t-Tell Is Bullshit!

“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”

— Ernest Hemingway

1. LIMIT

Show-don’t-tell is bullshit.

Now, before a lynch mob of angry keyboard warriors attempts to verbally slay me, let’s all calm down and establish a context.

First, to understand what is meant by show-don’t-tell, we have to determine what showing and telling denote. While these terms may be self-explanatory, for the sake of this essay I’ll provide brief definitions, along with examples.

Showing: let readers figure out what’s going on.
– He yawns and his eyes are slowly closing.

Telling: state to readers what’s going on.
He is sleepy.

Second, prior to diving into the discussion, I want to clarify that I’m not bashing the notion of show-don’t-tell for the sake of bashing it, nor do I mean to attack anyone that adheres to this philosophy. Yet, at the same time, I won’t hide my truth behind a veil of prose, for I’m here to challenge, to stir a discussion—not to murmur.

So, I’m not saying that showing is a bad thing in and of itself, or that telling is always the way to go. What’s more, I’m talking about creative writing in general; that includes—but isn’t limited to—novels, short stories, non-fiction, poetry, etc. Lastly, show-don’t-tell isn’t merely bullshit; it’s one of the biggest lies in creative writing, second only to the nonexistent writer’s block phenomenon.

For one thing, the sheer phrase itself, “show-don’t-tell,” with an obvious emphasis on don’t, is inherently limiting because it implies that telling is never allowed. This is wrong.

The second reason why I’m writing this essay is also an explanation as to why I think this prohibition is wrong. It’s because this limiting, old-fashioned notion is one of the first things that’s being taught in writing classes, courses and groups[1]. This isn’t efficient because showing isn’t always an easy technique to learn. It takes effort to get right and therefore it makes zero sense to start with showing right out of the gate. Here, of course, the argument could be made that people are wired differently. Some actually do learn showing really fast. But that is not the point of this essay, because this isn’t so much about how fast people pick up new skills as it is about the negative implications of teaching people stupid shit.

More specifically, if you teach beginning writers that telling is bad, you instantly cut them off from a legitimate writing technique that, at the right times, is actually more effective than showing. A possible consequence is that these beginning writers develop a belief system that tricks them into focusing solely on showing. But if showing is the only technique that they use, they set themselves a pointless mammoth task. Word counts and page counts of their projects will increase dramatically, which might scare them off (especially if they’re new to the craft). This could trick (new) writers into thinking they have developed a writer’s block, because they might build up a resistance to the self-imposed restriction of writing such detailed prose. This could make writing seem harder than it needs to be[2]. Additionally, I can guarantee that there aren’t many people out there who have the time or the will to read works that solely employ showing. Myself included. Sure, I might be able to imagine certain smells and sounds and colors, but what’s any of that worth anymore if it’s done all the time? At some point it will lose its power, and that’s when it becomes a chore to read. I’ll feel inclined to close the book and read something else.

On the other hand, the story lacks serious substance if only telling is used, because it’ll feel like there are miles between me and the story I’m reading. Consequentially, it could be hard to really become invested in the tale if the focus is entirely on telling. Yet again I’ll end up closing the book and reading something else.

Therefore, seeing as show-don’t-tell is inefficient and outdated, and tell-don’t-show is just as ridiculous, I propose that we stop thinking about writing in these limiting terms and move toward balance. Because only with balance can we discover where to apply showing and telling, and come to see them for what they are: tools—nothing more, nothing less.

2. SIGNS

Show-don’t-tell is closely associated with prose—both fiction and non-fiction[3]. But there is also the other end of the spectrum. There’s a popular saying on the internet, which some people misuse as a counterargument: “It’s not called story-showing, it’s called story-telling.” What such a statement implies, however, is that rather than finding middle ground, it’s now about opposition and resistance, which instantly shuts down potential discussion.

However, there is some degree of truth to the “story-telling” statement, but it’s a bit trickier than that statement lets on. First of all, I argue that writers indeed don’t show readers anything. The genre of prose on its own, without visual aids, isn’t capable of this simply because it’s comprised of words on a page. But that’s not to say that readers can’t visualize imagery at all. Beyond the terms showing and telling, there’s a common ground where it’s the readers who interpret the words on the page and form an image in their minds. In order to explain exactly what I mean by this, I’d like to bring Ferdinand de Saussure’s[4] notion of the sign into the discussion, because at this stage we’ve surpassed the art of writing and have entered into the realm of linguistics.

***

De Saussure’s sign consists of two aspects: signified and signifier.

Signified refers to the concept of a word. For instance, we can imagine a tree. That image of the tree is then the concept; it’s what’s signified.

Signifier refers to the symbol that we use to denote what is signified. For example, you have the image of a tree in your mind, and in order to describe that image you say the word “tree.” That word is the signifier.

However, “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (De Saussure 854, my italics). In other words, there is no reason for using “tree” to refer to the image of a tree. This is proven by the fact that different languages use different signifiers. In Dutch, for example, we use signifier “boom” to refer to the image of a tree. So, a tree is not a tree because we call it a tree. That is not to say, though, that we can simply make up random words for things. As De Saussure explains: an “individual does not have the power to change a sign in any way once it has become established in the linguistic community” (854).

Since the interpretation of signs in a prose story occurs in our thoughts, it’s worth bringing up two more of De Saussure’s points.

First, De Saussure argues that “without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula” (856), meaning that “[t]here are no pre-existing ideas, and nothing is distinct before the appearance of language” (856). As such, thought needs signifiers in order to conjure up the signified despite the relation between the two being arbitrary. That is to say, when we read a word, we can see the image that the word conjures up in the mind—we can see the signified.

Second, a word doesn’t mean anything without context. Take for example the word “tree.” You could argue that it’s pretty obvious what’s meant by it: it’s just a tree! But we don’t know what kind of tree. Is it a pine? An oak? A palm? Another type? And even if we determine its type, we still don’t know how old it is; where it’s located; if there’s a bird’s nest in it; if it still has all of its leaves; if it’s even standing anymore or has been cut down; etc.

To focus more specifically on showing, I argue that writers don’t put images in readers’ minds. Instead, they put signifiers on a page, and that’s that. It’s the reader who creates mental images around these signifiers. Granted, these images are informed by the information that writers provide, but the words on the page can only take readers so far. Everyone is different and sees things differently—we’re all individuals. We see this reflected in the fact that people often disagree about what a character looks like. We also see people disliking a casting decision when a film adaptation is produced, because the actor’s visage doesn’t match the image in the mind of a reader. Moreover, readers are wont to see things in a text that the writer may not have originally intended. A good example is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. While Carroll probably just intended this to be a fun children’s story, the tale takes a wild turn when it shows up in communities where psychedelic substances are frequently enjoyed in combination with “trippy” works of art.

So what is showing then, if it’s not truly the act of showing images? In my opinion, it’s merely a technical term; we might as well call it detailed writing. Such details, such words, are building blocks that readers—possibly by way of mental muscle memory—use to create the foundation of subjective interpretation. Writers merely provide those building blocks. Therefore, I think writers shouldn’t try to dictate what readers are supposed to “see,” but leave room for readers’ own creative interpretations. Not everything needs to be forcefully spelled out.

3. BALANCE

In order to achieve balance, we should view showing and telling as equal tools. However, we can’t use showing and telling interchangeably; they each have their specific uses. Think of it like this: if you want to drive a nail into a wall, you don’t wield a saw, and if you want to cut a plank in half, you don’t hold a hammer. And in the same way that carpentry is a craft, so is writing. Just like in carpentry, we have to learn how to use each tool effectively. That involves figuring out when to apply what. As such, it’s important to determine beforehand what type of passage we’re going to write, or critically reread a passage during the editing process, because this will indicate which tool is best suited to that type of writing.

Imagine[5], for the sake of argument, that we’re working on a fantasy story and the protagonist has just won a fight against an enemy inside a dungeon, but, wounded, he struggles to make his way out. This is an important moment in our story, and warrants a writing style that reflects that importance. The goal is to immerse readers in the experience, and to make them worry about the protagonist. If we’re to apply telling, the passage could look like this:

The hero doesn’t want to stay in this place a second longer. He’s in great pain, and, as he is worn out and drained, he struggles to move toward the exit. Then he becomes overwhelmed and dizzy, and loses consciousness.

But that’s not very exciting. It just comes off as a dull report, and fails to capture the direness of the situation, and therefore it’s harder to achieve the aforementioned goal. So let’s see what happens when we rewrite the passage, using showing this time.

The hero fixes his eyes on the large wooden door. He grits his teeth and groans, and tightly presses his hand to his bloody waist. He breathes heavily and sweat shines on his face as he shuffles across the floor. Then the walls begin to rotate, the floor and ceiling revolve around him, and the room darkens and fades…

Now let’s compare the passages in order to highlight the differences. First of all, telling the reader that “the hero doesn’t want to stay in this place a second longer” is an easy way of explaining the hero’s current state of mind. However, by showing how “the hero fixes his eyes on the large wooden door,” readers can work out that the hero wishes to leave by visualizing the hero’s body language. So too can readers deduce that the hero is “in great pain” by showing that he “grits his teeth and groans, and tightly presses his hand to his bloody waist.” This same principle applies to the next line, which continues to describe body language, indicating that the hero is struggling to move to the exit. Only the final sentence works differently.

Telling that “he becomes overwhelmed and dizzy, losing consciousness” feels distant, as if an object external to the reader is described. Therefore it may be hard to relate to. However, showing that “the walls begin to rotate, the floor and ceiling revolve around him, and the room darkens and fades” is meant to evoke a disorientating sensation. Rather than deducing what the hero is going through by visualizing his body language, readers can now imagine what it’s like to experience these sensations through the hero’s eyes, and thereby determine that the hero is dizzy and losing consciousness.

Furthermore, in a different story which focuses on someone’s emotions, it may not be necessary to describe in detail the environment, because this will diminish the focus on those emotions[6]. Yet, describing in detail the surroundings can be effective when you want to capture an atmosphere, rather than merely telling readers that a graveyard is scary or a forest is peaceful. Showing can also be effective when you want to slow down the passage of time, or indicate that readers should remember the appearance of a character, or emphasize the significance of an object.

***

Telling, on the other hand, is unrivaled when it comes to setting the stage. This is often achieved through exposition, which is a subset of telling used to refer—via dialogue or narrative voice—to events that took place before the actual story. The primary function is to bring readers up to speed so they can place the events in the story in the right context. Take, for example, the opening paragraph of Stephen King’s novel Insomnia:

No one—least of all Dr. Litchfield—came right out and told Ralph Roberts that his wife was going to die, but there came a time when Ralph understood without needing to be told. The months between March and June were a jangling, screaming time inside his head—a time of conferences with doctors, of evening runs to the hospital with Carolyn, of trips to other hospitals in other states for special tests (Ralph spent much of his travel time on these trips thanking God for Carolyn’s Blue Cross/Major Medical coverage), of personal research in the Derry Public Library, at first looking for answers the specialists might have overlooked, later on just looking for hope and grasping at straws. (King 11)

Sadly, I’ve noticed that the word “exposition” has gained some negative connotations in the writing community, which probably stems from this whole show-don’t-tell nonsense. While I would certainly object to the use of exposition to describe key moments, exposition is not, by its very nature, bad. Looking back at King’s passage, we realize that it captures the scope of an entire novel—just think of all the characters that Ralph interacts with, all the traveling, all the research and, most importantly, all the emotions, feelings and conversations with his wife. It’s simply not feasible nor desirable to stick to a strict show-don’t-tell principle here; you’d have to be out of your mind.

Additionally, sometimes it’s fine to use exposition in dialogue; it can actually make dialogue more natural, more realistic. In everyday conversations we rarely if ever use showing, so it would come off as artificial and weird if characters do so in fiction. To illustrate this point, if we went out for groceries, we would simply tell people so. We wouldn’t describe how we were sweating in the sunlight on our way there, or how we shivered as we felt the air conditioning on entering the store, or how the weight of groceries slows us down on the way home. Alternatively, think about two characters chatting at a party. It’s absolutely fine if one of the characters talks about this girl that he met in a bar the other week. It’s not at all a stretch that people simply have random conversations at parties. If your story lacks these types of conversations, you could argue that it doesn’t entirely reflect real life. Besides, even Oscar Wilde used exposition in the first chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton talk about Dorian and the painting before Dorian himself shows up; the protagonist is introduced to us through the eyes of other characters first, a clever narrative trick.

Moving on from exposition, telling, if applied to the right scenes, can balance out a story’s pacing. For example, if a certain piece of information is too important to leave out of the story, but not important enough to describe in detail, telling can strike a balance. Furthermore, telling can speed up the passage of time: think about a character driving a race car. Merely providing glimpses of imagery can illustrate how fast the character is speeding past people and/or objects. In addition, telling—like showing—can actually be used to build suspense, albeit in a slightly different way. By telling readers that the protagonist sees a monster, or a cute girl, or an event in the distance, you can foreshadow an upcoming passage in which you do use showing, thereby increasing its impact. Lastly, telling can also be used to indicate that something is not important to the story, which you might want to do when, for example, it concerns a red herring in a detective novel. The fact that you use telling can then be an actual clue.

***

Before we finish up, let’s have a look at a passage from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club that successfully strikes a balance between showing and telling. First I will present the passage in full, and then provide a breakdown to discuss how both tools are used. Of course, this is just an example, not a perfect example—there are many more ways to achieve balance. Also bear in mind that this is just my opinion and, as always, you are encouraged to draw your own conclusions.

Bob’s big arms were closed around to hold me inside, and I was squeezed in the dark between Bob’s new sweating tits that hang enormous, the way we think of God’s as big. Going around the church basement full of men, each night we met: this is Art, this is Paul, this is Bob; Bob’s big shoulders made me think of the horizon. Bob’s thick blond hair was what you get when hair cream calls itself sculpting mousse, so thick and blond and the part is so straight.

His arms wrapped around me, Bob’s hand palms my head against the new tits sprouted on his barrel chest.

“It will be all right,” Bob says. “You cry now.”

From my knees to my forehead, I feel chemical reactions within Bob burning food and oxygen.

“Maybe they got it all early enough,” Bob says. “Maybe it’s seminoma. With seminoma, you have almost a hundred percent viral rate.”

Bob’s shoulders inhale themselves up in a long draw, then drop, drop, drop in jerking sobs. Draw themselves up. Drop, drop, drop.

I’ve been coming here every week for two years, and every week Bob wraps his arms around me, and I cry. (Palahniuk 16-17)

Breakdown:

“Bob’s big arms were closed […] we think of God’s as big” (16). The opening sentence introduces the two main characters for this section: Bob and the protagonist himself. It’s important to have this at the start, because this puts the focus on them for this scene. The sentence simultaneously describes an action—hugging—and we now know that whatever is going on is emotional, personal and a little awkward, and the tone is set. Additionally, this description is narrated in a distinct voice as part of the protagonist’s inner monologue, thereby establishing the text’s identity and adding some extra flavor to the reading experience.

“Going around the church basement […] this is Bob” (16). After the opening sentence, Palahniuk goes straight into exposition to explain to readers that this is a frequent activity in the protagonist’s life, thereby bringing in an element of suspense, because why does the protagonist attend these meetings?

“Bob’s thick blond hair […] the part is so straight” (16). I consider this a bridging sentence from the previous exposition to the subsequent interaction between Bob and the protagonist. While the sentence doesn’t necessarily reveal any key information, it does provide extra signifiers that readers can use to establish their own imaginative rendition of Bob, thereby adding more visual detail to the character.

After this bridging sentence, Palahniuk uses showing to describe an action: “His arms wrapped around me […] on his barrel chest” (16). The action is completed with Bob’s dialogue: “‘It will be all right,’ Bob says. ‘You cry now’” (16). The combination of the action and the dialogue shows that he’s very emotional. Furthermore, Bob may have the capacity for compassion, yet it’s also possible that he’s merely projecting his own sadness on the protagonist. So, different interpretations are possible, which adds a layer of complexity to the character.

Next, Palahniuk uses telling to describe what the protagonist is feeling: “From my knees to my forehead, I feel chemical reactions within Bob burning food and oxygen” (16). This is a great example where telling is much more effective than showing. While I don’t strictly want to rule out the possibility to describe these chemical reactions with showing, I will say that it’s probably really difficult to achieve. By using telling instead, you can be sure that the message is clear to the readers, and writing that message in a unique narrative voice also makes it entertaining to read.

After Bob’s dialogue, Palahniuk shows the reader that Bob is crying: “Bob’s shoulders inhale themselves […] Drop, drop, drop” (17). By imagining Bob’s movements, readers can piece together a mental image of a crying man. And this is where we see that showing should not be used all the time as well, because while it’s effective in this instance, it could become boring rather quickly if Palahniuk keeps showing how his characters cry, as there’s a fair bit of crying in this chapter.

Finally, we move to the last sentence of this passage, which sums up everything that has come before: “I’ve been coming here every week […] and I cry” (17). Exposition is used once more, which echoes the opening sentence, confirming that this is a weekly activity (a detail that Palahniuk left out earlier). He also tells the reader that the protagonist cries, rather than showing it yet again, which relates to my earlier point: after elaborately showing a specific thing, it’s unnecessary to show it again the next time you want to mention it, especially if it closely follows the elaborate showing.

***

To conclude, both are perfectly legitimate ways of writing a story. Showing isn’t inherently better than telling, and vice versa: they are simply different. They can both be executed incredibly well, or outright terribly. The truth is, each is a potential useful tool in the toolbox, and it’s but a matter of understanding which tool works best for what situation, as there are instances where it’s best to apply showing rather than telling, and the other way around. Ideally, a story should have a good balance of both, not an overabundance of one. Choose your tools wisely.

Works cited

King, Stephen. Insomnia. New York City, Signet, 1995.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. Great Britain, Vintage Books, 2006.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. “Course in General Linguistics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010, 850-866.

Endnotes

[1] I speak from personal experience: the introductory sessions I attended all ended up focusing on show-don’t-tell. Additionally, everyone I talked to about this says the same.

[2] That is not to say that writing is easy. It’s a craft. It takes hard work. I’m just saying that we don’t have to make it harder than necessary, because that takes away the joy of writing. After all, to write good stuff I’d say you have to be passionate about it, because it takes a lot of practice to get good. And when it comes to writing, I personally find that there’s no passion without joy.

[3] I suppose I should say “creative” non-fiction, which entails diaries, blogs, journals, memoirs, etc. However, I think the term “creative non-fiction” is kind of superfluous because writing, to me, is a creative process anyway, from empty page to text. Whether that’s a fantasy story, a memoir, a newspaper article, a review, or even an interview.

[4] Ferdinand de Saussure is widely recognized as the founding father of linguistics.

[5] Since I only have room for a couple examples in this essay, you are of course encouraged to think of showing and telling in relation to other kinds of passages yourself.

[6] Unless you use the environment to reflect the emotions, of course, but that just means that you chose a focus that differs slightly from my example. That said, you could opt to focus on both, but you’d have to make sure they are connected and speak to each other. Otherwise you’ll end up having a rather disjointed narrative.

 

Casper website

 

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