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Show Don’t Tell—A universal rule?

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

What is 'Show Don't Tell', and when and why should we avoid it?


There seems to be some discourse in the writing community at the moment around the age-old advice, “show, don’t tell”. A lot of people are suggesting people ignore this advice, that it stifles a good story etc.


Let me be perfectly clear, while there are exceptions to the “show, don’t tell rule”, it doesn’t stifle a good story—it makes a mediocre story a good one.


Don’t be confused by the fact that *insert prolific author here* does it all the time. I assure you, they don’t. When it matters, a good writer will always, always go for showing over telling.


Observe.


“The boy was sad.”


It’s a basic, juvenile sentence, found infrequently in children’s books. Do you actually really care about the boy?


Now see this:


[credit to Holly Black]



See how much more this connects us to the character, draws us into the narrative, makes us care about the boy and his sadness? Yet never once are we told his emotion—we just feel it.


Because that is the cardinal rule: show emotion, tell feeling.





There is one other moment where telling is appropriate—to summarise an event you don’t want to take forever. Below is an extract from a current WIP:



Summer comes. The greens of the landscape sharpen, the day turning longer, lazier. Flowers bloom everywhere, in the manicured gardens, in window boxes, by the sides of the roads and the floors of the forest. The world is swathed with them, and Boann too. The boughs of the woodlands are brimming with so many flowers that even the rivers are bursting with them.


I start learning healing from Dria and Morgaine. I use the sword, challenging its power to mend cuts in leaves or soothe pain with heavenly light. Surface damage only, so far. Muscles are harder, organs even more so.


“It’s more than glamour, fixing things,” Morgaine explains. “Glamour is linked to imagination, to emotion. You see, and you create. Healing is linked to understanding, to logic. You need to know how muscles work, the way that blood moves, what each organ should feel like… lest you fix it in a way that causes more damage.”


The only way to learn is through experience. Morgaine offers to gut wild boars for me to practise on, but I don’t yet have the courage to do so, and concentrate on minor wounds instead whilst I train with Vivianne and Mistress Vaina during the day, and Red Wolf at night.


It is hard to stay indoors. I take long walks in the garden without Vivi, secretly running off to Boann every chance I get, to learn practical healing magic from Morgaine or Dria, to swim in the lake and rivers, to run through the trees or lie in the grass or marvel and how the world here feels feather-soft and razor-sharp at the same time.



If I was to show all of this, rather than tell it, it would likely take an entire chapter. Given the amount of time that passes in the story, and the number of ‘training’ segments, it would get very boring and repetitive very quickly if I dedicated the full time to each one. But herein lies the exception; I am not telling over showing because I’m lazy, or I don’t know what to do, or I’ve seen some other author doing that same thing. I am telling for the benefit of the reader, knowing that this is what’s needed for this particular part of the story.


But if I want them to feel connected to my characters, if I want them to feel that the characters are connected to each other, I need to show that. Writing, “and then the two characters bonded” or condensing a bonding scene into two paragraphs is never going to have the desired effect.


Rules are only made to be broken if you’re breaking them for the right reasons.


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