Show AND Tell – Rules for Writing

By August 26, 2015Comms

This blog has been a lot of personal ruminations and discussions of day job stuff lately, so I want to talk for a moment about writing craft. A lot of writing blogs are focused on discipline, inspiration and other tangentials, and very few discuss nuts and bolts of how to write well.

This is because art is incredibly subjective (the best definition I’ve ever read is “Any activity not specifically focused on survival or reproduction”), and therefore defies rules-based architecture and ontology. This makes teaching art problematic. When there is no “right” way to do a thing, it becomes challenging to relate how best to do it to others.
Let me give an example here.

My first source of writing “rules” was the Turkey City Lexicon. It’s a primer for SF writing workshops, and it presents a lot of hard and fast regulations for good writing, all of which are highly quotable, incredibly useful and totally wrong. The one here I’d like to discuss is “Show, don’t Tell.” Of course, the truth is “Show *and* Tell, according to when it’s appropriate.”

Consider this example: “Lena met her mother’s eyes across the table. She didn’t bother talking about the film. Her mother never understood her work, never thought of a life in the arts as ‘legitimate.'”

This is passive. Lena is thinking. The narrator is TELLING you what she thinks. It’s a squandered opportunity, because this kind of tension between a mother and daughter is a human story that could be really gripping if the reader is placed in the moment and allowed to experience it for themselves, instead of having it narrated. Now, consider this rewrite of the same example:

“So, how’s it going?” Mom asked.

“Oh, you know, nothing really changes with me,” Lena rocked the blade back and forth. The onions were cut smaller than they needed to be, were in danger of sliding over the edge into mush, but Lena kept chopping, eyes down.

“Oh, come on,” Mom rolled her eyes. “I see you posting all kinds of exciting stuff to Facebook. You can’t tell me about it?”

Lena’s stomach twisted. She’d been down this road. She knew exactly where it led. “Yeah, there’s . . . Well, you know from Facebook. There’s the movie. It’s making the rounds at the festivals and it looks like we have some interest.”

Mom was silent for too long. Lena risked a sideways glance and saw her lips pressed into a thin line. “That’s great, sweetheart. Any money?”


“For the film? Are you getting paid anything?” The trap was set, and Lena saw no way to skirt it.

“well, not yet. That’s not how this works. The money comes . . . well, it comes later.”

More silence, broken only by the sound of Lena’s moving knife and her mother’s long exhalation. “I see,” her mother finally said.

Okay, so this is just back of the napkin stuff, but you see the difference? I think the second example conveys the same information: A judgmental mother, and daughter who is taking a risk in the face of that judgment. However, I also think the second example is *better*, it is more interesting and engaging, because it allows the reader to actually experience the emotion via the protagonist. The writer doesn’t come out and say “this is how you should be feeling right now,” and thus leaves the door open to the reader having a new/profound experience.

But this isn’t *always* the best way to write. Consider the next set of examples:

“It was raining. Kam was soaked and freezing.”


“The clouds washed the sky dirty gray, thick and boiling. Kam trudged along, boots slapping the concrete, splashing up water that soaked quickly into her socks.

She shivered, feeling gooseflesh rise over her spine. The muscles of her back formed a funnel that directed the water straight down into the waistband of her trousers. She forced her teeth to stop chattering with an effort. Just a few more feet and she’d be inside, dry and warm.”

In this case, I think the first example is better. Yes, the second example puts us in the character’s shoes and allows us to experience the scene first hand, but in my opinion, nobody cares. This is excisable text that slows down the narrative. Were I to read this, I would be skimming, wanting to get on with the meat (plot and character development) of the story.

In both cases, showing takes more text (and thus more time to read) than telling. Ergo, telling is useful when the writer has tense narrative around the passage in question, and wants to convey detail quickly to the reader, without slowing down the story.

But a writer has to be able to tell when the details are trivial enough to be put in a tell, vice so trivial they can be excised entirely. Likewise, writers have to be alert to not squandering opportunities for emotional resonance.

Lastly, patience. Showing is almost always more work than telling. There is an unfortuante tendency to rush in writing, because the writing part is hard work, while the sending stuff off to agents, editors, publishers is easy and fun and exciting. Thus, we are naturally inclined to always use a tell because we just want a project to be DONE. Watch this, don’t rob yourself.

I am, of course, talking about myself more than anyone. I have reached the point where I need to reserve an entire editorial pass just to look for tells. I have published 4 novels now, and written 9, and I still have a problem getting this right.

To sum up:

1.) Show AND tell.
2.) Be alert – don’t squander opportunities to put the reader in a scene and make them feel something by showing.
3.) Be alert – don’t make the reader suffer through trivial details when you could just convey it with a tell.
4.) Be alert – sometimes those trivial details aren’t even worthy of a tell. You can cut them.
5.) Be patient. Art is hard work. Watch yourself and make sure your motivation to use a tell isn’t a shortcut around the additional writing necessary to properly show.
6.) Rules in art are stupid.

Author Myke Cole

Myke Cole is an American writer of history and fantasy who leverages a lifetime in military, law enforcement and intelligence service to take you to battlefields, real and imagined.

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