“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

– Anton Chekhov

Show, don’t tell. This is probably the first writing advice I can remember truly taking to heart. What superb advice! Of course one should always show! Not only does it bring a visual to the reader, immersing them in your story, it also has literary flair, which we all appreciate, right?

However, I soon became discouraged with this advice because it so often tripped me up. Showing takes up a lot more words. Showing takes a lot more energy. Showing can really slow down pacing. Showing is harder than telling.

Soon I came to a realization that I had been misusing this wonderful piece of advice. “Show” does not mean that the writer gives a visual to everything in the story, nor does it mean that they have to say things without really saying them. It’s not that one should never “tell” in the story, it’s a question of when you need to show and when you need tell, and yes, you need to do both. But how do we know when we should do which?

I came up with a whole list of advice for when we should show and when we should tell and quickly realized I was being redundant. Here’s the condensed version:

Show when something is important.
Tell when it’s only necessary.

Someone points out a place in your manuscript and says “Show, don’t tell.” What they mean is, there is something important that you are glossing over with telling. They sense that you should open it up for the reader to experience. In that particular place, it’s important that the reader feel the weight of the action or information as the characters do, (or would if they were real.)

But I propose we also make popular the opposite advice. Tell, don’t show: for those torturous instances when someone has fleshed out pages and pages of dialogue and action when all they really needed was a few short words to move the story along. Tell, don’t show.

Show, don’t tell.
Tell, don’t show.
Show and tell.

Read and study your favorite books. Pick out when they show and when they tell. What does each accomplish? Learning when to show and when to tell is deliberate skill, but also a skill that moves from the conscious to the subconscious mind, like riding a bike.

Show, don’t tell. But when you start to feel anxiety over the matter, just tell. You’ll feel a lot better, and your reader probably will too.

Are we dizzy yet?

Next up contradiction: The Market: To heed or not to heed?


2 comments

  1. FANTASTIC!! I like how you broke it down!

  2. Superb advice, Liesl. Thanks.

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