Show, Don’t Tell

Seth Fried

Most of us are familiar with the old creative writing maxim, Show, don’t tell. If you have taken any college courses in creative writing, this advice is something your instructors have probably tried to impress upon you in those few minutes toward the beginning of class before their hangovers get the better of them and they start sleeping beneath their desks. For those not familiar with this particular piece of wisdom, it has to do with the belief that it is preferable to show a narrative’s action to a reader through descriptive language as opposed to flatly telling the reader that action is taking place. This is incredibly valuable advice. After all, without it any book could just be replaced by its jacket copy.

As a boy I attended Henry Fielding Elementary, a special school for gifted fiction writers, and so this element of craft was instilled in me from a very early age. While Show and Tell is a typical activity for most classrooms, my classmates and I were only permitted to show. We would stand at the front of the room, holding up objects of personal significance and staring blankly out at our classmates. If any student ever tried to tell the class what the object was or why it was significant, he or she would have to spend recess locked in an old trunk.

Figure 1: Class trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania

But for those of you who were not lucky enough to attend a special elementary school for preternatural fiction geniuses, I understand that this strong emphasis on showing might not be as firmly ingrained in your psyche. It is likely that you do not even keep a leather strop near your writing desk so that you can whip yourself with it whenever you find that you have inadvertently written a dreaded “telling” sentence. That is why below I have composed some sentences intended to demonstrate to you once and for all the obvious superiority of showing over telling.

Bad: Spiderman was angry.

Good: Spiderman raised his katana sword over his head and let out a blood-curdling howl.

Bad: The garbage truck was smelly.

Good: The garbage truck was filled with festering poop, and in the July heat the semi-opaque stench waves turned into a giant fist that began to punch birds out of the air.

Bad: France shares a border with Spain. 

Good: Like lovers sharing a farewell kiss on a railway platform during wartime, France and Spain touch lightly and then are separated.

Bad: “I’m leaving you,” she said.

Good: “I’m leaving you,” she pushed air through her trembling larynx, producing vibrations that were softly contorted by her lips, tongue, and teeth so that these words were inevitably what was heard.

Figure 2: Standard Composition Strop

From those examples alone it is clear not only that showing is always necessary and appropriate, but that telling is always hellish and shitty. Granted, there are many people who might argue that telling is just as valuable as showing and that the very best writing is actually comprised of these two elements playing off of each other. These people might even argue that there is no maxim or oversimplification of craft that can compete with your own private sense of what aspects of your writing are the most honest, urgent, and beautiful. However, it is important to remember that the people who would put forward such a point of view are all mentally ill. Creative writing is not about expressing your unique personhood; it’s about learning secret craft rules that will help you to purify your work of imperfections. Any suggestions to the contrary are most likely just the uninformed ramblings of all those unfortunate souls who failed to spend their formative years locked safely in an old trunk.