Show Don’t Tell: Overused Advice?

If there is one piece of advice I’ve heard more than any other during my career as a writer, it is this: show, don’t tell.

But what does that really mean?  And is it always true?

What writers mean when they say show, don’t tell, is that it’s more effective to ‘show’ how a character experiences the world through that character’s thoughts, senses and actions than it is to ‘tell’ the reader through summary narration. 

Of course, there’s a reason why the ancient adage has stuck around. Readers prefer to be shown—through scene and dialogue—what the characters are experiencing.  When we show our characters experiencing the world through action, we allow the reader to get as close as possible to those characters’ psychic spaces. The reader is able to see and feel through the characters’ senses, which results in a more visceral reading experience.  

And who among us doesn’t want that for our readers?

But I don’t agree that we should always be showing and not telling. The truth is, there is a time for showing and a time for telling. Often, the telling in our writing can do important work: it can establish meaning and context; it can condense backstory; it can provide retrospective and reflection.  In short, telling can add a layer of understanding that the reader wouldn’t have simply by watching the characters act and speak ‘on stage.’

Telling has a place in our writing.

So, if I were to revise that ages old advice, I would say this instead: show as much as you can, and tell when you really need to.

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