“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.