Man with a bow and arrow

Why “show, don’t tell” is nonsense – and why it’s important anyway

It has to be the single most common piece of writing advice there is: “Show, don’t tell.” And yet so many of the unpublished stories I read demonstrate that their authors don’t understand it. And honestly, that’s not surprising, because taken literally it’s utter nonsense.

Writing is, by definition, telling. You’re speaking to your reader through words, not pictures. So how the heck are you supposed to do anything but tell them things?

Here’s the secret: yes, all writing is telling. But by choosing what it is you tell your reader, and how you tell it, you can create a vastly more enjoyable reading experience.

Telling all, and why it’s a terrible idea

Bob was aiming his bow and arrow at the archery target. He really wanted to impress Jim, who was watching, because Bob was attracted to Jim, but he didn’t know if he could make the shot.

In two sentences, this gives you everything you need to know about what’s going on, and it’s boring as hell. Why? Because it doesn’t make the reader do any work at all.

You might think the point of writing is to give your readers everything they need to know, but you’d be wrong. Reading isn’t actually a passive activity. Enjoyable reading involves mental work: envisaging scenarios, pondering character motivations, predicting outcomes, puzzling over mysteries. Believe it or not, readers want to be made to think (whether they know it or not).

Once you get a reader thinking about what they’re reading, they’re no longer just passively along for the ride. They’re actively involved in the process of telling the story – and if they’re involved, they’re invested.

The trick to getting a reader thinking is simple: give them clues, not straight information.

Side-note: explicitly explaining every detail to your readers isn’t just boring, it’s kind of insulting. Did this author really think I was so dumb I couldn’t figure out from context that Jim must be there watching?

So let’s try that again.

Getting the reader in on the action

Bob stared down the shaft of his arrow at the archery target. Was Jim watching? If he hit the target, Jim would be so impressed, and maybe he could finally work up the nerve to ask Jim out. But what if he missed?

Now we’re giving the reader something to do.

The first sentence lets them work out pretty easily that Bob is holding a bow and arrow, unless this is some weird alternate reality where archery is more like darts. That may seem like a small thing, but already it’s getting them involved in actively understanding what’s going on.

The second sentence piques their interest – who’s Jim? Why does Bob care if he’s watching? The third sentence gives them the answers, but takes its time drawing them in: OK, Bob wants to impress Jim, but why? Ohhh, because Jim is the guy he likes.

The final sentence raises the stakes, but again it makes the reader do some legwork: why is Bob speculating about missing the target? It must be because he isn’t sure he can make the shot.

So now the reader is interested. They’re thinking about what’s going on. They’re actively involved in the storytelling process.

Technically, this second version is still telling things to the reader. But it’s telling them things at a remove – you’re not telling them the facts, you’re telling them the clues they can put together themselves so as to deduce the facts. You’re inviting them to invest mental energy in your story.

And the funny thing about people is, once they’re invested in something, they tend to care about it. Will Bob make the shot? Will he just ask Jim out already? Now your reader wants to know.

And while we’re on the subject of not telling your reader too much…

Go easy on description

Consider a third version of our little scene:

Bob, a tall, skinny guy with brown hair and blue eyes, stared down the shaft of his arrow at the red and white archery target. Was Jim, the Chinese hunk from his Chemistry class, watching?

We’re still getting our readers involved in the action. But to get to it, they have to wade through a bunch of description.

“But surely,” you might say, “my readers need to know what Bob and Jim and that vitally important archery target look like?”

Well, yes and no. Like I said at the start, this is writing, not painting. You don’t need to create a visual for everything your readers should “see”. In fact, one of the great advantages of writing as a storytelling form is that you can let your readers paint their own pictures – again, let them get invested in telling the story with you.

Let them decide what colour the archery target is – that one’s easy. Let them decide what Bob looks like? Sure – unless it’s important to the story that Bob look a certain way.

If Bob is self-conscious about his height, let that come up naturally in the story – that gives the reader a clue to his appearance without telling them outright. If Bob has a non-default racial appearance (in Australian/British/US context – if he’s not white), that should definitely come up in his story. But leaving out aspects of Bob’s appearance that have no story relevance both keeps the text from getting bogged down in telling and allows the reader to create their own image of Bob.

As for Jim, his looks and his connection to Bob are more important, because they’re relevant to Bob’s interest in him. But you can still find less direct ways to clue the readers in.

Describing his looks sometime when Bob is actually looking at him would be a good start – and it gives you a chance to show how Bob feels about those looks. And the Chemistry connection, unless it’s important, can be as simple as having Jim ask Bob about an upcoming test.

So I should never just tell it straight?

Wellll… nearly.

Sometimes you don’t want the reader to work too hard. Sometimes you just want to get them from A to B to you can get on with the good stuff, and in that case there’s nothing wrong with a bit of straight-out telling.

If the last time the reader saw Bob, he was just enrolling in archery classes, there’s nothing wrong with prefacing our scene above with, Three weeks had passed, or even, Three weeks of gruelling training had gone by. You’re not getting the reader invested in knowing more about the time that’s passed, but that’s fine – it clearly wasn’t that important to the story, or you would have given it some scenes.

So showing is a myth?

Not exactly. Rather, I would say “show, don’t tell” has become a shorthand among writing types for that process of using clues rather than straight facts to bring your reader into the story.

It’s a useful shorthand if you know what it means, but a downright opaque one if you don’t. Hopefully this post helps tell you – and show you – what it’s all about.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash
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