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Show, Don't Tell Means Fewer Words, Not More

"don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of the light on broken glass." quote by Anton Chekhov. Show don't tell. illustration by Katherine M Kennedy-2

With Show, Don't Tell being such popular writing advice, authors and writers adhere to it with an almost reverential enthusiasm, resulting in pages and pages of descriptors of showing rather than telling even when telling would get the job done better. We, the reader, are treated to an entire chapter that painstakingly shows us what a few quick words would have told us. The character cannot be in pain; they have to be in agony with all the facial contortions and racing hearts that entails. They cannot be sad; they have to be the saddest person who ever lived, with heart-rending descriptions that go on for pages detailing every moment of that sadness. It is infuriatingly boring.

Mainly I'm mad at Show, Don't Tell because A) I wasted a lot of my writing time trying to follow it only to end up with an overly descriptive word vomit that I then had to waste more time correcting. B) it is ruining books.

What is Showing, What is Telling, and Why Does it Matter?

Telling is stating outright, whereas showing is demonstrating through sensory perception. It matters because it puts the reader right in the action rather than just informing them of the events as they transpire.

  • Tell: She walked to the shops.

  • Show: Each foot fell with a slap against the hot pavement drawing her exhausted frame ever closer to the cool air-conditioning of the shops.

  • Tell: She was nervous.

  • Show: She bit her fingernails

  • Tell: She went to the bathroom

  • Show: She poised her bottom above the porcelain, bracing for impact.

Show, Don't Tell—A History

Show, Don't Tell is attributed to the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov who wrote, "Don't tell me that the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Funnily enough, Anton Chekhov is also responsible for Chekhov's gun, the narrative principle that states, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." Taking these two principles and consistently applying them means that the broken glass that the moonlight is glinting off better come back around and be critical to the story later.

The simplistic version of the advice to Show, Don't Tell adds a lot of descriptive elements into your writing, even when the prose has no point. Why simply state that a character is running late when you can indulge in a whole paragraph of pigeons flying and clocks striking one to demonstrate how late they are?

Taking Checkov's advice even further demonstrates that he was largely talking about describing nature, "In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes, he gets a picture." Checkov implemented this in his short story, Hydrophobia. "The dam, flooded with moonlight, showed not a bit of shade; on it, in the middle, the neck of a broken bottle glittered like a star." He isn't just describing moonlight; he's describing a dam, moonlight, and creating a setting with a mood. And he's doing all this with remarkably few words.

The Hemingway Editor names sake, Earnest Hemingway follows up on this idea, likening words to an iceberg, where only a suggestion of the larger unseen body is visible, using fewer words to suggest a larger foundation beneath the words. Not more, but less. "If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."

Showing Uses Up Your Words

Words are valuable. When writing a book, you have a limited amount of them. Books adhere to certain word counts, and every word is valuable. Every word given away leaves fewer behind for characterization, plot development, and all those valuable things that make a story good. Wasting words is basically criminal.

Showing too often results in a long-winded way of explaining a simple concept; instead of the moon shining, we get a 500-word poetic explanation of glass glinting. This concept is simple in a visual format; in a play, movie, or tv show, telling would involve literally having a character or narrator tell the audience, "The moon is shining." Showing would be a camera pan to the moon that is indeed shining. A more poetic but still visual interpretation would be a camera pan to the infamous broken glass reflecting the light of the moon. When used visually, each of these methods takes roughly the same amount of time, unlike writing, where each method would take wildly different amounts of words, with the poetic version being the most word intensive.

It's all Telling When You Write It

"The moon is shining."—telling through dialogue.

"The moon was shining"—telling through narration/ description.

"Moonlight glinted off a broken shard of glass."—telling through sensory perception.

Show don't tell often translates to "Can you show it on camera," which is not the purpose of a book. Visual storytelling aims to relay a narrative in the most visually exciting way, to show rather than tell. The goal of written stories is to relay a narrative in the most interesting way through words, and the most effective way of storytelling is often the most direct, providing information quickly and effectively without relying on visuals. A written story has the advantage of being able to crawl inside a character's mind and relay information directly through internal thoughts or through narration, something that visual mediums do not have as ready access to without narration.

Show, Don’t Tell and The Death of Nuance

Writers (and readers) don't have the time or the desire to slog through a line-by-line setting description. A camera can capture those 1000 words in a split second; a book cannot do the same. That's why writers rely on (for lack of a better word) vibes. Pooling multiple ideas into descriptors. Encompassing the characters' perception, and the setting's ambiance, using as few details as possible but using them effectively. When it comes to Showing, Not Telling people's thoughts, feelings, characteristics, and actions, the conciseness is often lost, and the descriptor becomes foremost. Every angry person must clench their fists and scowl; every person who is sad needs to cry. The internal world of the characters is lost to visual cues. The smallest of emotions need to be demonstrated visually. A touch of sadness must be indicated through downcast eyes, drooped shoulders, and a fit of weeping. Nuance is lost.

Scenes are not allowed to have moonlight; they must all have shards of glass. Show, Don't Tell has value, being told that a character is depressed while they smile ear to ear… well, actually that's really interesting and nuanced, and I'll defend it to the death. Still, being told that a character is smart when they act stupid is annoying. It's a contradiction, and contradictions are where Show Don't Tell really should be applied. The moon cannot shine in the sky without reflecting on the lake; the shard of glass cannot glint if there is no light source.


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