The Tricky Thing About “Show, Don’t Tell”

“Show, Don’t Tell” is one of those really popular writing advice that I keep struggling with. Maybe I just haven’t read enough guides on how to do it well, but it’s probably safe to say that at this point, I’m not a fan of this advice. My biggest issue with it is that people who give this advice rarely illustrate how much to show.

Take these examples:

Level 1: Jane Doe was agoraphobic.

Level 2: Jane Doe was afraid of stepping out of her door. Ever since she and her mother were attacked under gunpoint and their wallets stolen five years ago, Jane had found the outside world unbearable.

Level 3: Jane’s sister told her that today there would be a solar eclipse. Jane didn’t even need to go very far to see it. Her sister had given her a pair of glasses to peer through, and all she had to do was step out on her balcony. And yet, even though that sounded so simple, Jane could not bring herself to do it. Just seeing the sidewalk, even if it was different from the one she and her mother had taken that awful night, made her heart hammer in her chest and her hand clammy with sweat. No, she much preferred the view and the atmosphere inside. She was not going out.

Okay, so clearly Level 1 is telling. We’re just dumping the information straight out. Level 3 is clearly showing. We’re describing a situation and Jane’s responses to it as it is happening.

But what about Level 2?

This is the part I find so tricky. Level 2 is “telling” when compared to Level 3, but it can be considered “showing” when compared to Level 1. So if I write something that is similar to Level 2, is that actually showing or telling? And perhaps showing and telling isn’t really determined by the writer, but by the reader, you know? If I’m reading and I expect Jane’s agoraphobia to be “shown” like Level 3, then Level 2 will feel a little disappointing. On the other hand, if I’m impatient and I don’t find Jane’s agoraphobia all that important, Level 3 might seem excessive, when there’s Level 2 that will perfectly do.

I don’t have a good way of ending this post. I’m just saying… I find “Show, Don’t Tell” a rather stiff advice. Not to mention, sometimes you don’t want to “show,” right? Sometimes all you want to say is “roughly squared wooden beams, wooden carriages, and cannon,” instead of describing the actual wooden grains of the cannon.



5 thoughts on “The Tricky Thing About “Show, Don’t Tell”

  1. This technique is extremely difficult to do, and I agree with you whole-heartedly. Tell too much, and you get laughed at. Show too much, and you get labeled as “too descriptive.”

    I know there’s a balance somewhere, hiding just beyond my reach. Please let me know if you ever find it. Lol! 🙂

    • Thanks for the response! I’m glad I’m not the only one having a hard time with this trick. I see reviewers say it all the time in Goodreads, but as a writer, it’s so much harder to tell how detailed something should be! Lol, if I find any useful guides somewhere, I’ll be sure to share!

      • I think the problem might lie with the lack of specific guidelines of this “show, don’t tell.” With so many writing styles and so many diverse genres, I get lost in translation of what that means.
        Some readers enjoy reading the three paragraphs of how Aunt Lucy drinks her tea. Others might be content with, “Aunt Lucy loved tea, and drank it daily with the fervor of a thirsty camel.” 🙂

  2. Recently I listened to an interview/podcast with Janice Hardy (Author of the Healing Wars Series). She talked about this, and also acknowledged that sometimes, telling is ok. Like in your three examples-(just my opinion, nothing scientific here!) I’d say Level 1 for a minor character where this information will affect how we perceive their actions. Level 2 for a secondary or main character where I need more info on why or how they got to where they are. Level 3 is only for a main character and only when I need to build up sympathy for them over this particular set of circumstances. (Hopefully I explained myself well – was writing today and realized I was telling instead of showing … grr)
    Good luck!

    • Ohh, that’s certainly helpful! (Gosh, I miss Healing Wars… perhaps it’s time for a reread of that series too). And I also recently bought an editing book, written by editors, and they wrote extensively about the topic of showing vs telling. I kinda wished I had read that book before I made this post, because now I understand the topic and the techniques much better.

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