Why “Show, Don’t Tell” is So Difficult to Follow

“Show, don’t tell“, they say to us. Our earliest grade school English teachers, our idolized authors in interviews, right on up through our grad school MFA professors. It’s so easy. Just stop telling us everything and let something be illustrated by the action of the story. Just take a step back and let the story unfold. Show, don’t tell, for goodness’ sake!

So why is it such difficult advice to follow? Why do we struggle to show and not tell?

If we want to understand how to show and not tell, then I think we need to understand why it’s so difficult to follow this old common-sense advice. We love our favorite books for doing it, but for some reason we can’t manage to do it in our own writing. And it all boils down to a few fundamental reasons. These are the reasons that “show, don’t tell” is sometimes painful, sometimes counter-intuitive — but nearly always worth trying.

1. Insecurity

This is the big reason that we just can’t help ourselves and insist on over-explaining a poignant moment or spilling a character’s entire back story in the first page. We are fundamentally lacking in confidence as writers; we aren’t sure of our own talents, and so we overshare in an anxious attempt to prove our story, to apologize for it. When we over-explain, we’re telling our readers that we know this character isn’t interesting enough on his own, but if you’ll just please read on, you’ll see that he also has lots of interesting problems, so won’t you please, please read?

How to fight it: It’s time to grow a little backbone. Your writing will never improve until you have confidence that it will improve. So take a deep breath and remind yourself that you are in fact a writer. You can do this. You don’t have to beg for readers.

2. We want to explain it just right.

We tend to spend a lot of mental time on our novels. We have an idea in mind and we might spend years of our lives getting it just right in our heads, figuring out just how the metaphors and tropes and central conceits are all going to click sublimely together like the workings of some sort of fine Swiss watch. That’s why we want readers to appreciate all this hard work and intricate interlacing. So we over-explain. “See, this scene perfectly parallels this other one,” we want to point out. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” Rather than letting our readers figure out the inner workings for themselves, we want to hold their hands, pointing out the greatest sights.

How to fight it: Step back and take a breath. The pleasure of reading comes from figuring out these things on our own — remember? You should be trying to recreate your favorite reading experiences in your own writing. Write the books you want to read, which are usually the ones that aren’t hitting you over the head with their metaphors.

3. Editing is harder than emptying our brains on the page

The other obstacle in the way of showing over telling is the very way we tend to think about scenes when we’re planning them. We know at the beginning what the scene means and who’s feeling what; we don’t think about it in terms of the hidden gestures and wordless looks that may truly belong in the final draft. So the first draft is likely to be very tell-y. It’s you, emptying out all your thoughts about this scene. More than a scene, a first draft can often be saying, “Here’s what I think has to happen in this scene, and what everyone has to be thinking.” That’s an important first step, but it’s a bridge step to the shore of the finished work, not the finished work itself.

How to fight it: Once you’ve clarified all this on the page and in your head, you can go back and eliminate that bridge. You needed it to get to this new shore, but now you don’t need it anymore. Strike it out.

How do you fight the urge to tell more than you show?


4 comments

  1. Number three is the one that gets me, and when I go back to revise, I often find myself using the same gestures or even similar language over and over. Then, too, there are times when I can *see* something in my head — a particular smile, an expression in the eyes — but struggle to describe it.

    Number two is a real killer when it comes to poetry. The urge to over-explain or to tell rather than show can kill a poem’s potential faster than anything else I can think of.

  2. mary brady says:

    I don’t ‘tell’ much of anything when I write prose–I use a LOT of dialogue & a bare minimum of description. I never describe what anyone looks like unless it is pertinent to the story. This all happens because I’m lazy & can’t be bothered. I like having characters talk to each other & keeping a lot of action going. I like getting my characters into & out of scrapes.

    I figure a character’s present actions tell enough about their back story, usually.

    I think much of my ‘style,’ such as it is, is due to the fact that I expunge memories of my own quite regularly. I took to doing this as a child in a very crazy family & I’ve never stopped. Since I feel as though I just appeared, full-blown, on the scene, with no prior story about ‘what I am like,’ the same goes for the people in my stories.

    I’ve been dabbling in poetry recently & it is torture. Regular readers of this blog need not be reminded (painfully)of my long-windedness. Condensing image, feeling & eternal truth
    into a few short lines is quite hard for me. The desire to simply “tell” & get it over with is hard to resist!

    Very good post, BLH. Why, why, why are we artists SO insecure? (You advise we grow some ‘backbone.’) It is odd, though–people know if they’re good singers or not, decent painters or not. But EVERYONE thinks they could knock out a novel or three, no problem!

    I hate those people. Shut up & do it, if it’s so easy!

    I’ve heard mfmff Broom, the author of “Forrest Gump,” on C-Span’s Booknotes a number of times. He writes historical books now. He stated on camera that he felt most writers had only a ‘few really good novels’ in them. Since he’d written his 3 or 4, especially “Gump,” he simply switched to writing historical non-fiction.

    Broom made the distinction between himself & writers with MORE than a few novels in them, but argues that the majority of writers, like him, do have that limit.

    Still, he remains a full-time writer & enjoys his craft. I was impressed with the man’s blunt honesty & acceptance of his own limits. As I understand it, there is a huge number of writers who produced ONE ‘groundbreaking, debut novel from an original new talent!’ And then are never heard from again…

    Makes ya think.

    L&K, MaryB

  3. Lauren says:

    My English teacher for my Creative Writing unit focused on a little aspect of the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule, which was adverbs – she made us do an exercise where we weren’t allowed to use them, which of course made us realise just how much we relied on them. She said of course we can use adverbs some of the time, but other times we should stop taking the easy way out and actually describe what it is that makes the man look like he is walking determinedly, or talking uncomfortably.
    Just as with the larger aspects of ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ you’re discussing, it was hard to do but well worth the effort.

  4. Jake Shirley says:

    Excellent post. “Show, don’t tell” is such a short piece of advice and a lot of people who give it seem to think it’s easy. It’s one of the many things that are simply stated, but difficult to apply. Number one had the biggest impact on me. I’m very much a fledgling writer and I do feel the need to prove my stories to the reader and to myself, and to apologize if it doesn’t work. I’ll try to grow that backbone.

    Number two also. One of the worst things I think, for me, would be the reader not getting it, or not understanding where I’m coming from. I’ll try to trust the reader to figure it out.

    Number three is good advice. Rough drafts are called “rough” for a reason. Everyone has their own process, and I think I’m the writer who gets the story down first and goes back to edit later. Thank you for the advice.

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