Show Don’t Tell – Except When You Shouldn’t

I just finished a book that took forever to read. It had great characters, a compelling conflict, and clear writing, but the author must have believed in the sage writing advice, “Show Don’t Tell!”

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Except when you should!

Good advice but not always. There are times to tell and there are times to show.

In the referenced novel, the detective would do something, then in a few pages, he described what he had done to his friends, then to his partner, then to… you get the idea. We’d seen the blow-by-blow once, we didn’t need to hear it over and over again. Here, a simple, O’Brian recapped his day, then toasted his friends with a beer. “To life!”  That simple “tell” sentence would have saved pages of dialogue.

Rules of thumb for telling and not telling:

  • Don’t repeat a prior scene in detail. Shorthand it. We’ve seen it, no need to repeat it. If it’s necessary to recap it, be quick about it.
  • Show emotion; show conflict. There are so many better ways to show it than to say, “she was angry.” Paint a picture, don’t talk about feelings and don’t shortchange conflict.
  • Avoid stage direction. There is no need to detail Molly’s walk from the bedroom to the kitchen if nothing happens on the way. “Molly woke up and dug through the refrigerator for eggs.” We know she got dressed, went to the bathroom, walked down the hallway and entered the kitchen. Show the journey if something happens, though.
  • Show things that break the stereotype; tell things that don’t. In Robert B. Parker’s Spencer series, Spencer is boxer turned cop turned private eye. He’s a thug. But when he cooks, the spare-prosed Parker describes in detail the sautéing of onion, peppers, and things I’ve never heard of, because Spencer’s culinary arts breaks him out of thug mode. It’s perfectly ok to say, “Mom cooked an omelet.” Cooking is within the stereotype. You’d show it if she burns things and puts ketchup in the omelet (we all know ketchup only goes on scrambled eggs).
  • If it’s important, show it; if not, tell it. We need to visualize everything that must be assembled to picture the climax. You can tell anything that isn’t. Unless…
  • You know your audience – Tom Clancy is what I call a flipper novelist. He gets into technical detail ad nauseum, so I flip through a lot of pages. My dad, on the other hand, read every word. I’m pretty sure Pop could assemble an atomic bomb on a nuclear submarine in Russian waters if he had to. Clancy writes for the engineer and engineer wannabe. Your audience may want details. Tell away.

And then you have John Grisham, who raises telling to an art form. When you sell a few million books, and you can write your own rules about show and tell (wish-wish!)