Rules to Break: Show, Don’t Tell

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There is a rule that is often taught to creative writing students that might do irreparable harm to their prose: “Show, Don’t Tell.” I was told frequently that summarization and describing moods is terrible writing. Professors insisted that I canonize one of my least favorite writers of all time, Ernest Hemingway, for his minimalistic style that refused to resort to the petty internal monologues that other, lesser authors leaned on as a crutch.

I hate Hemingway. “The Old Man and the Sea” remains my least favorite book of all time, for its heavy-handed Christ allegories, its dour tone, and the lack of any sort of interesting story. The fact that it’s required reading for high school English students while books that will actually engage teenagers and children like “Harry Potter” are not remains one of the biggest reasons I did not become a teacher. God forbid we should teach recent and influential books to students– no, we should instead teach a sixty year old text about a senior citizen who goes fishing. Never mind that current students can’t engage with the text or identify with the era in which it was written. Let’s bore them, that’s a good idea.

Here’s a pair of sentences from Hemingway that should sum up his writing style if you’ve never read him before: “He went to the river. The river was there.” Pulled from a short story titled “Big Two-Hearted River,” this sentence duo is hailed as excellent prose. And it is, if you’re writing for English Literature professors and nobody else.

The reason I speak of Hemingway and my distaste for his writing is that he was a big supporter of “Show, Don’t Tell.” The rule, as you might guess, states that, rather than tell the reader what happened, what is happening, or what characters are thinking, you demonstrate it by action. Instead of writing “Mark was terrified,” you should write “Mark gasped in alarm and fright.”

The idea of the rule is to engage with the reader’s senses– taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing– and allow them to infer the implications. In a previous post, I explain some of the dangers of going overboard with descriptive writing.

In brief, overly descriptive prose takes up so much space and time that it might just annoy the reader. People don’t need details on every single piece of furniture in a room, the individual wrinkles on a character’s face, or the exact textual depiction of every leaf on every tree.

In fact, I prefer to do almost the opposite, especially when it comes to describing how characters look physically. In Catalya, for example, I describe the titular character as beautiful, with green eyes, and a musical laugh. That’s it. For Chuck, the perspective character, I only say that he wears glasses. His dad is described as a big man, as is his friend Alex. Andrew has a beard. And Catalya’s mom looks like her daughter. The closest I get to any sort of definitive description is Derek, who is detailed as tall, of indeterminate age, and with a long scar across his face.

I don’t give too many details for two reasons. The first is that, by excluding them, I allow the reader to fill in those details on their own. Catalya looks like whoever you want her to, and the same goes for the other characters.

The second is that Catalya clocks in at 121,000 words, already pushing the generally accepted limit of commercial fiction (though I think that’s a bunch of crap). If my style required excessive details, that word count would likely be upwards of 160,000– there are a lot of scenes and locations.

“Show, Don’t Tell,” on the other hand, demands those descriptions. Adjectives are a way of life for the style’s adherents, but they are never applied to mood or inner monologue.

This style focuses on prose rather than plot. Word choice and sentence construction are paramount. 

As I have said many times before, I firmly believe that good plots make good books. I think that before you ever put words on a page, you should come up with the best plot possible.

There are some benefits of the rule, however. Some scenes absolutely should be sensory and descriptive.

These are the types of scenes that add drama to the story. Details of a wedding scene should be plentiful. A first date might include descriptions of outfits and demeanor. The scenes done this way will depend entirely upon the story, its narrative arcs, and the writer’s discretion, of course.

The problem with relying too heavily upon it, however, is that it can drag the pace of a story right down to zero. I read a story once that had a thrilling chase scene; a dude was running from vampires through an office building. In the middle of the action, the narrative stopped for three paragraphs to describe the layout of a room the protagonist just entered. It then picked right back up, beginning with the protagonist leaving the newly-described room.


This is a rule that should be broken, and as frequently as you wish. This is especially true depending upon the point of view of your story.

Let me explain.

When you write in first-person, unless your perspective character is a mind reader, every other character’s actions are a case of “Show, Don’t Tell.” There is no vehicle to describe inner monologues, hidden emotions, or ulterior motives, except inferences made by the perspective character– inferences that can be wrong. Because every detail is viewed through the lens of another character, obviously the individual actions are open to interpretation.

That doesn’t mean that the same can or should be true of the perspective character. There is absolutely nothing wrong with narrating.

“I was scared. Scared that I would lose her.”

Works just as well as

“Monica, you aren’t thinking of leaving me, are you?”

Imagine, for a moment, a first-person POV book written entirely in “Show, Don’t Tell” style. No narration is given; all of the details are plentiful, and their implications are entirely inferred by the reader. Does the perspective character’s shuffling feet indicate nervousness or eagerness? That’s up to you, dear reader, because I can’t be bothered to tell you. What book on this planet would you want to read like that?

Well, you would be reading Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk is a big proponent of “Show, Don’t Tell.” While I like his plots, I find his prose to be borderline unreadable. It reads like slam poetry. And while poetry is fine in and of itself, I believe that it has a place, and novels are not it.

Detail after detail assails you, with no break in the narrative, no exposition, just data, raw data, pummeling your brain until you see the scene. I don’t think that there is a wrong way to write stories, but I’ll be damned if this doesn’t seem like one. I felt the same way about Jonny Truant sections of House of Leaves, which was written in a similar style. That, at least, had the saving grace of being a fascinating labyrinth of a book. Fight Club was just the most nineties book ever written (your job is lame and boring, there are no real men any more, and if you have a steady income and use that income to purchase things you think would look good in your house, you’re a sellout).

There’s nothing wrong with providing details. They’re good! Details can help you provide your reader with an escape, or give an insight into a character’s traits. But there absolutely must be a balance.

I work as a freelance editor, and I’ve worked on several client’s novels. (By the way, twenty thousand words is not a novel– hate to break it to you). Far too often, these first-time authors appear to have fallen into this trap of overly descriptive writing, and have, rather than providing a finished product that is well-written, have handed me a document that is chock full of purple prose. Every single line in one of them contained some kind of sensory description of the scenery or the characters present.

Like, I get it. The chair is brown, sagging closer to the floor after multiple generations of alcoholic Archie Bunker-wannabes have sat in it. We don’t need forty words dedicated to a freaking chair. It’s not even an important chair– it’s just there while two people are talking. Neither of them are even sitting in it! And it’s never mentioned again.

I’m not exaggerating, here. I deleted the chair paragraph (along with a lot of other things), and was given a lecture in return about how I don’t understand the symbolism of the chair. I got an email from this client telling me about how this freaking chair represented the patriarchy.

Look, I understand where a lot of you guys are coming from. I’ve got degrees in English Literature. I’ve read the stuff, written the papers, had the debates, and heard the lectures. It’s very easy to fall into this trap, to begin to believe that the average reader enjoys dissecting books until every last allegory is exposed, that they love to discover all of the hidden symbolism in each text, and that their open interpretation of what you meant when you described the home as Blue (with a capital “B”) is what drives you as a creator.

But you know what? It’s not true. It really, really isn’t.

The only way you can get away with stuff like that is if it isn’t heavy-handed. You know who wrote really tediously? J.R.R. Tolkien. That’s right, I said itThe Lord of the Rings changed my life, and set me on a course from second grade to who I became today, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t spend twenty damn pages describing the road upon which the Fellowship travels. I love that story, but won’t read it again until it’s time for me to read it to my kid.

Summarization and narration are important tools in a writer’s arsenal. There is absolutely nothing wrong with telling your reader what your character is thinking or what they’re feeling. Not every single scene needs to be a sensory experience. I hear from a lot of people that it isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey. And I get what they mean, but, like, shouldn’t you make sure that you’re not detouring in Moscow to get to London?

The fact of the matter is that you have to strike an appropriate balance in your prose. You absolutely cannot focus on prose and sacrifice the plot. The truth is that we remember The Lord of the Rings because of the epic story, not the clean, crisp narrative.

And please, for the love of God, remember that description is not all it takes to write well.

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