Show Don’t Tell – Ugh!

I belong to several writer’s sites. I enjoy interacting with fellow writers, critiquing, and sharing what I’ve learned (and I pick up a few new tidbits along the way). One topic that repeats itself in its excessive, stripped-down, over simplified version is the advice: Show don’t tell. Of late, in a new mutation of this, I’ve even seen lists of words that have been branded as ‘telly’ words. As in: if they appear in your sentence, it’s a signal that you’re telling instead of showing. Yikes! is what I say to that.

So, for all of you who are interested in the truth on this topic, I’ve a few words to say:

How is a word ‘telly’ in any way? A single word? Telling in narrative is about how you construct sentences and paragraphs, flow action with revelation and internal character workings. Single words alone are not ‘telly.’

The perception that ‘show don’t tell’ is a universal axiom is incorrect. A novel or story written entirely in ‘showing’ is laborious and lacking in character development. A solidly written narrative will have elements of both. It must, or how else can you ‘tell” the reader how a character thinks and feels? You can’t possibly show thoughts or assumptions or judgments. They must be told to reveal character. The caveat: tell them creatively and with meaning.

Use of a word like  ‘then’ is akin to an adverb or adjective. Used with thoughfulness and an eye toward avoiding excess, it’s an effective part of the language. A far worse crime is over the top melodrama which comes of trying to show everything and reaching deep into the thesaurus to construct contrived ‘writerly’ sentences that dash credibility.

This week’s challenge: Study a chapter or two of a published novel and see how a pro handles showing and telling within a narrative.

One thought on “Show Don’t Tell – Ugh!

  1. Louise says:




    Sounds a familiar conversation, lol! Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more. Some sites advise people as if writing is meant to be the equivalent of a comic book (sorry, “graphic novel” is just too pretentious for my liking). Wham! Thud! Wallop!

    And those are the longer and subtler sentences…

    (Apologies for only getting to this blog page now!)

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