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November 12, 2007



Hurrah! (And Francine Prose has quite a good bit about this in her Reading Like A Writer.)

Jim Murdoch

Personally I get tired with too much description, even well-written descriptions. I only need a pencil sketch to let me know where we are; the gist of a description and I'm off. that's what's MY imagination's for.

I think the whole show-not-tell mentality disparages our audience. They are a whole part of the equation. They like to work things out for themselves.

Good article.


Sometimes, I think the bigger problem is the writer who tells what they have already shown. I see this a lot from my beginner students, who have decent dialogue and action that shows how a character is feeling/reacting, and then some terrible dialogue tag like, "he said, trying to calm her down."


I think your essay would be more effective if you showed up more examples, instead of just telling us about them.


Wow. Maybe what we need today is more badly written stuff.


Marge: "Homer, it's easy just to sit there and criticize."

Homer: "Fun, too."

Dylan K.

Okay, so you "show, don't tell". Now, the next question is "show what"? You have to tell some things, as the fingernail example above shows well. A good writer should know which images are the most meaningful, and use them in the best way. Telling and showing go together like words and punctuation.

Andy Lee

I never thought "show" meant "describe" in the torn-vinyl-couch sense. I would call that telling, not showing. I interpret "show, don't tell" to mean that merely describing is not storytelling. We need to "dramatize," as you say in your second paragraph.

I agree that the tired old phrase should be questioned, and that the show/tell distinction quickly gets blurry. After all, any declarative sentence "tells" in some sense.


"the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it's so much easier to write "The big brown torn vinyl couch" than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language."

This is a false dichotomy, isn't it? One isn't forced to choose between *showing* the state of an apartment's interior decorating, on the one hand, and *describing* "internal emotional states," on the other. For one can also *show* internal emotional states. Or so the argument would go.


The advice to "show, don't tell" is to allow readers to think for themselves, to make up their own minds about what's happening in a story rather than having it thrust down their throats.

Your example "She was nervous" is telling the reader that this is the intended interpretation of events. Saying "She bit her fingernail" allows the reader to engage in the story and make an independent interpretation. Maybe she wasn't nervous, but had simply snagged her nail and didn't have a nail-file to hand (the rest of the story might give some hints as to whether this is the case).

This is basic fiction craft. Take 'telling' to its logical extreme and you might as well write that stuff happened and everyone lived happily ever after, or not.

A lot depends on the POV. Your viewpoint character might have good reason to believe that 'she was nervous,' but how is the reader to know, unless you 'show' us what your viewpoint character sees? (If you simply 'tell' us that your viewpoint character "saw that she was nervous," how are we to know whether your viewpoint character is making an accurate interpretation?

Ester Verwoest

Who ever introduced the rule show, don't tell? I cann't find that information. Maybe one of you knows? I am investigating the pro's and conta's of show, don't tell. Thank you for answering. Ester


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Great website!

Christopher Posner

Have you considered the possiblity that "telling" can be done through the mouths of characters in the story- preferably interspersed with dialogue?


No one probably cares what I think, but I think that the 'show, don't tell' mantra is an editor's lazy way of saying, "I don't want to work with you to make this into commericial fiction."


Finally, someone who is talking some real sense when it comes to this crazy rule "Show Don't Tell."

Also, it should be noted that when the "TELLING" is done right, there's a level of sophistication that comes across in the prose.

So, here, here for TELLING.

Thank you for posting this, Mark!

Joanne L.

I completely agree! This misguided dictum is right up there with never using anything but "said" for dialogue tags, and the even stupider "rule" that dialogue tags should always have the name or pronoun first and the verb second.

Invariably, when some writing guru posts two examples, one telling and one showing, the showing one makes my eyes glaze with unnecessary description. Furthermore, if you're inside a character's head and she is analyzing her feelings or thoughts, it makes more sense for to ask herself, "Why am I so nervous?" as opposed to "Why am I biting my fingernail?"

I call myself a storyteller, not a storyshower, for a reason.

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