5 Reasons ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Is Bad Advice

There are certain rules that at some point every budding writer will hear. It is almost inevitable that we will all one day get a piece of feedback on our work along the lines of ‘You’re telling too much here, you need to show more’. Show Don’t Tell is a classic rule of writing.

It is also, in my opinion, bollocks.

To Clarify

This section is somewhat of a disclaimer. Before I start listing my reasons why I believe Show Don’t Tell as a rule is bad, I feel I should make my position perfectly clear. I’m not saying verbatim that the rule should be abolished, or that a writer that gives that piece of advice to another writer should be struck down.

However…

1. It’s Confusing

It is an oddity present in a lot of writing advice; those silly little rules that are perceived as enlightening, yet really bring shades of darkness down upon us. The problem with Show Don’t Tell as a maxim is that it doesn’t actually explain itself.

Take a rule of society in general – just for example, Never poke the Queen in the eye with a stick. It gives everything you need to know. There are no grey areas that need to be further interpreted. It’s simple; never maim a tree, and then lunge at Royalty.

On the other hand, Show Don’t Tell does not explain itself because:

2. We Are Storytellers

By our very name, we are tasked with telling people. Literature is there to tell people about things that they personally can’t see or imagine. Show Don’t Tell confuses writers, because a very hefty percentage of writing is telling. It goes against the fundamental basics of writing. It’s like telling a drummer to be quiet, a swimmer not to get wet, or television talent shows to stop murdering the music industry and devaluing the idea of celebrity.

We love to get inside the heads of characters in a novel. It is where the longest passages of description are usually to be found; in the places where a character is considering the situation around them, and reacting to it. Of course, there are some emotions, such as anger and fear, that can be shown through actions, but the reasoning behind it might not be simple, or obvious.

3. It’s Meant To Be A Book

Do you know what you get if an author rigidly follows the Show Don’t Tell rule? A film.

4. It Clashes With Actual, Published Writing

Yes, I know, published authors didn’t get where they are by telling all the way through the story. But it confuses an aspiring writer, as it used to confuse me, how I could be reading a book that had been published – the cover and inside pages splashed with rave reviews – that was filled with huge paragraphs of exposition. (Read Why Fantasy Writing Is Not Porn for more on why Fantasy is the worst genre for this). Again, as with a lot of writing advice, it often clashes with published works by great authors. If they can get away with it, why can’t I? the aspiring writer is left asking.

5. It’s Not Advice At All

Perhaps it should be thought of more as a philosophy than as advice. The oddity that comes from writing advice such as Show Don’t Tell (and others which I will explore in later posts), is that you need another set of rules in order to know how to follow them. But there aren’t any rules to follow up, because the truth is that nobody truly knows. Good writing is like alchemy – no one has yet discovered the formula to turn lead into gold, or Sellotape into yoghurt.

Rant Over

If I ever get famous, and am constantly hounded by aspiring writers and novelists desperate for advice to help them get published, I already know what I will say. ‘Ignore all writing advice you were ever given’. Like all good pieces of writing advice, you will notice, this one contains a paradox.

Show Don’t Tell is a technique, in the same way as tagging dialogue at the front, or metaphors, that should be used  intelligently to enhance writing, not to restrict it.

If we’re going to blindly follow the rule of Show Don’t Tell, we might as well follow the rule of when writing, don’t use words.

Why not tell me your opinions of this rule, or if you’re feeling artistic, depict it in a little cartoon?

4 thoughts on “5 Reasons ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Is Bad Advice

  1. While I understand where you’re coming from, I think the main problem is only that “Show, Don’t Tell” doesn’t work all the time. But still… it’s so important. Because it gives a story life. By “showing” and not “telling,” it’s not so much saying you can’t have your character SAY something, state their opinions. Statements can still be made. Actually, this serves as a great framing device for a story, beginning or ending with statements like that.
    Showing something makes things more vivid, therefore making the story more relate-able. You ARE telling something, just in a better way.
    The rule applies less to saying something definite and more to saying, “She looked down at her shoes” rather than “She was sad.” While the first sentence still tells you something, it SHOWS her reaction to the situation. A recognizable reaction invokes more emotion than simply stating, “She was sad.”
    The purpose of the rule is very real: to help the reader involve themselves more with the characters.

    1. I completely agree. This post was meant to be explaining why it doesn’t work all the time, not why it’s actually a bad rule.
      I also agree that the principle is brilliant. It is actually the wording of the rule ‘Show Don’t Tell’ that I feel is the main problem. You can’t sum up an idea so complex and nuanced into three words, yet people do, and it confuses writers, often for no reason.
      I am fully aware of the many uses for the rule, but did not include them as that is not the point of the post. However your comment does perhaps highlight the need to do a devil’s advocate of my own post in a follow up, and to explain where the rule can be used, and where it’s ok to ignore it. I didn’t include these ideas in the post as it isn’t about the idea of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ being bad, it’s specifically about the wording, wording which people often believe has to be followed verbatim.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. ” ‘She was sad…’ ”
    “Ah-ah-ah: ‘Show, don’t tell’.”
    “Okay… ‘She looked down at her shoes…’ ”
    “Well, now you’re just telling me she looked down at her shoes.”
    “How about, ‘She threw the book at her so-called critique partner’?”
    “…Are you trying to tell me something?”

    Consider that a cartoon sans pictures. 🙂

    Thanks for tackling a bit of so-called advice that’s been bugging me since the hundreth time I heard it casually tossed around as literary gospel. Granted, the principle behind the phrase is a useful one to keep in mind. Telling things that show is what good storytelling is all about. As for storyshowing…well, that’s just not a word.

    1. Glad you liked the post. It’s one of those posts I would have liked to have read a couple of years ago, when I was desperate to become a better writer and so was twisting my brains trying to think of a way of showing something that couldn’t possibly be shown, thinking I’d never be a good writer because I couldn’t do it. But yes, as I said in the post, you pointed out, and derekberry said, the principle of ‘Show Don’t Tell’ is a solid one, but saying ‘Show Don’t Tell’ to someone as though that’s all the information they need is a pile of… well, let me go and find you a picture 😛

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