Tell, don’t show

Standard

What does that phrase mean to you?

If you are a writer, I imagine that you’re thinking I’ve got that the wrong way round. The classic advice to writers is “show don’t tell.” The doddery old fool has got muddled again. Bless.

If you are a reader, you might have no feelings about the phrase whatsoever. It means nothing to you.

And that leads us to a strange paradox about the business of writing.

There is no shortage of advice about how to write fiction. Sometimes it seems that everyone who has written a book has also written a book about how to write a book. There are regular print magazines, active forums on the internet, local writers’ circles, correspondence courses … the list goes on.

And there is no doubt that much of it is good advice. Nearly every “bad” book that I see would be improved if the writer had followed the standard advice.

“Show don’t tell” is a classic example. This means that you should show things through action rather than by telling your audience directly. If your main character is heroic, have him do something heroic. Don’t just say that he is a hero. Let your audience work it out for themselves. Give him a sword and send him out to fight dragons.

There are other “rules”. We shouldn’t over-use adjectives, especially the dreaded “he said, quietly” or “she said, slowly”.

And while we shouldn’t repeat words, it’s okay to repeat “said”. In fact, it’s far better to do that than to have lots of other words for “said”, such as murmured, whispered, sighed, and so on.

Most aspiring writers develop a mental checklist of “things I mustn’t do.” Bad things. Naughty things. Unprofessional things.

I’m no different. I read the standard advice and try to follow it in my writing. The siren song is that if only I could follow all the rules perfectly, then fame, success and glory would be mine.

Except it doesn’t quite work that way. Following the rules doesn’t guarantee success. And sometimes a writer can be successful without following these rules.

Yesterday I was reading a book. With my author’s head on, I kept finding “faults”.

In parts, the author was telling and not showing. He was giving us long passages describing each character without having them doing anything.

When he described speech he was trying desperately to avoid repeating himself. On the very first page we have “urged”, “asked”, “said”, “asked softly”, “said”, “put in”, “replied”, “pointed out”. This carries on throughout the book. After a while your eye is drawn to this. By trying to avoid “said”, he had come up with something far more noticeable and off-putting.

But here is the funny thing. The book I was reading was the Game of Thrones by George R R Martin – a highly successful book by anyone’s standards.

Let’s pull another book from the shelves. This one has a profusion of “said adjectivally”. In just one page, we have:

“sniffed angrily”

“said impatiently”

“said gently”

“said irritably”.

The author is giving us four paragraphs, each describing a piece of speech, and in each case we have  “said adjectivally”. Naughty, naughty! And the name of this awful book?

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling. I hear that it hasn’t done too badly.

There are many other examples. I have read dozens of successful books which seem to break the rules … and yet people buy them by the bucket-load. Readers love these books, while wannabe writers can find themselves stamping their feet and thcweaming and thcweaming until they are thick that it’s so unfair!

So what is happening here?

Matters came to a head when my wife recommended a book to me. She had really enjoyed it and thought I would too.

But I didn’t like the book. I couldn’t see past the rule-breaking – the telling instead of showing, the said adjectivally’s, and all the grunting, sighing, replying, responding.

My wife’s response? “Oh, I didn’t notice any of that. I was just enjoying the story.”

I have spoken to friends who are readers but not writers. They say the same thing. It’s the story that matters. The characters. The world created by the book. The actual words themselves are far less important.

We might call it the Star Wars paradox. How can one of the most successful movie series ever made have some of the worst dialogue ever written? Because we care for the characters.

Words are like the bricks of a house. We need them to do their job, but we usually don’t notice them.

A conclusion? Writing rules are important. We would have many more good books if all writers took the time to learn about the basics. But the rules will only take you so far. We shouldn’t obsess about them to the point where we stop giving readers what they want – story, character, tension, world.

And the title of this blog – tell don’t show? In part I was being deliberately provocative to get you to read this far. I do believe that it is better to show our readers something rather than tell them about it. In the usual meaning of the phrase, we should show and not tell.

But I also believe that there is one writing rule which supersedes “show don’t tell”. Just like in Lord of the Rings, there seems to be one master rule which is more critical than all the others. One rule to bind them all…

Above all else, we should tell a good story and not try to show-off with our words.

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6 thoughts on “Tell, don’t show

  1. i have found over the years dat writin wot a keyboard is a lot diff than writin’ wit a pen an paper, i seem to have come up with werdz that arent even werdz and welp my readers i keep seem to get a kick outa it sumtimez 🙂 so is my unique way of expressin cuz well not everyone speaketh english …lol. so when i type the werd Kewl to peoples kewl post-its well, they have to google it lol.is kinna funny :)…anyhow , yep its what in the story dat counts more sumtimes more than the “perfectiopn” of the critical analysis found by so many .. keep on keepin on ,,,da’ way u write is jest fine 🙂 Q

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  2. Wonderful! Agree with every word you say (oh, except ‘adjectivally’. Isn’t it ‘adverbially’?) I’m convinced most of the rules are devised by people who don’t write. And nobody ever mentions the fabulously versatile possibilities of prose rhythm. Seems to me that’s a make-or-break that often dictates better use of language automatically.

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  3. ‘Tell me a story’ has been part of human society from the beginning. Little kids want you to tell them a story and mine preferred me to tell stories rather than read stories to them. Before we were able to put words on paper, storytelling had a wonderful kind of freedom. Once formalized by structure ad nauseum, the life was practically sucked out of it. As with most things there needs to be balance and I think we’ve tipped way too far into ‘show me a story’, and do it THIS way. Some rules are good, but straightjackets? Not so much.

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