Nomination For Worst Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes, Chief Alchemist of Pitch University

Let me just be upfront that this is a rant on my part, because I think this SHOW DON’T TELL advice is totally useless to advanced writers. And probably of limited usefulness to baby writers.

bad advice

I hereby (with my pointed ranty stick) lead the charge to remove the generic advice called SHOW DON’T TELL from the writer’s lobe of our collective brains.

We need showing and we need telling. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation, if all those people who said, “Show Don’t Tell,” actually looked at their favorite books and underlined all the telling.

<Insert Revelation HERE>

Die, Rule, Die!

Instead of this bad-bad-no-no-you’re-doing-it-wrong “rule,”  what we really need are 9 conversation starters that get to the heart of learning the power of both showing and telling.

(Better yet, they focus on what’s important: creating the most effective reading experience for your reader.  And what do readers like?  Story.)

1) When is it better to have the story unfold and experienced in real-time scenes vs. just skimming over details and summing up quickly what happened over time (transitions)?  Or even summing up a conclusion reached in an instant?

2) How do we authors know which details, which observations, which emotional reactions, or which physical actions are important vs. unimportant to the story experience?

3) How can we most effectively get to the stuff that matters in each scene vs. stuff no one cares about (especially the reader and viewpoint character)?

4) When is compressing (summing) the wisest choice vs. expanding experiences(squeezing out the last drop) for effect?

5) When should we focus on factual vs. emotional experiences (emotional to the character, to the reader)?  When should we linger in that focus and bring the full weight of the story to bear upon it?

6) How many details and at what magnification level should we use in this specific paragraph, when selecting fresh and riveting details?  Should they be observed before the point-of-view character’s thought kicks in, or after reason and logic have filtered the detail for meaning?  What about emotion?  Or is that pre-thought?

7) How does a distant point-of-view (experiencing story more as a “viewer”) vs. a deep-immersion point-of-view (experiencing at the level of “I am the protagonist’s brain cell”) affect the need to write about a certain detail?

8) When does it benefit us as authors to use generic details vs. specific and “in-focus” details?

9) What are the genre needs, story needs, reader needs, character needs vs. the number of pages I have for this book, reader attention span, etc.?

An Example

A friend recently asked a writer’s e-group for insight into showing vs. telling, and used the following example to see if she “got it.”  That’s what inspired today’s rant-a-post, of course.

Donna was pissed.


Donna’s jaw clenched.

But here’s what I wonder.

Do I care about Donna?

Is the character’s realization that she’s pissed more important than seeing the indicators of being pissed? Does having a clenched jaw mean that she’s even pissed? What if she’s in pain? Well, in that case, coming to an incorrect conclusion and having it pointed out might be important.

And what’s going on in the story? Are we being shot at by a police officer because we’re criminals? I probably care more about running at that point.

Well, unless Donna is my sister. Unless I’ve seen this jaw clenching that she does before. Unless I know it means she’s made a decision, and she’s already turning around, raising her gun.

Or then again, maybe time has slowed. I blink. I hear my heart. I turn to look at Donna. Her jaw is clenched. I don’t know why. Before I can figure it out, she jerks forward, reaches out, screams, and I know that she’s been shot.

Or maybe, it’s just the two of us in the carpool lane waiting to pick up my daughter. And she’s pissed. Been pissed. Still pissed. What matters is that I know this and am ignoring her. And the reason she’s pissed is because I told her that I was the one who called the cops on her son last year. What matters to the reader is that I feel guilty, cause this kid killed himself a couple months ago. And now we’re picking up my daughter who’s still alive.

As the author, I could ground us in that reality, that carpool lane, in a
hundred different ways. And maybe knowing the sister is pissed is enough. Maybe having my character refuse to look at her gets to the theme of “how we create the realities we live in, even the ugly ones, by the things we won’t acknowledge as much as those things we accept” better than “showing.”

Take that SHOW DON’T TELL!

clip_image004Diane writes two alternating columns for Freelance-Zone:Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

2 thoughts on “Nomination For Worst Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell”

  1. Absolutely right, Diane. Where would Tess of the d’Urbervilles have been if Hardy had shown us Tess being raped by Alec? (Unpublished, for one thing.) Hardy uses ‘tell’ to sustain the mystery: was she willing or not?

    Personally, I have a horror of sites like Squidoo where authors are invited – nay, compelled – to drop in BIG colorful pictures plus videos, to titillate the forebrains of folk who have no back brains 🙂

  2. Awesome, Diane. There’s a time for show and a time for tell, and a skilled writer needs to know which one is appropriate in a given circumstance.

    I’d like to nominate “Write like you talk” to your list of bad advice. Most people simply don’t speak that well!

Comments are closed.