‘Show, Don’t Tell’ … or is That the Other Way Round?

Or maybe that rule should be amended to ‘show and tell’?

Lesson number one in this series of occasional posts written about the art and craft of writing: forget what dusty old writing tutors tell you! A writers group composed of the blind leading the blind may not be your best way to go, either. Why not? Because sitting round reeling off inaccurate aphorisms doesn’t necessarily help much in the writing stakes.

With that in mind, the first aphorism to be overhauled is the old ‘show, don’t tell’ adage.

Certainly, there is truth to the adage; I’m not in general terms arguing against it being the much-touted ‘first rule of writing’. Granted, then.

But when asked to define the adage ‘show, don’t tell’, I find most writers can’t – at least not in concrete terms.

And because of this reason, this adage isn’t always useful – and is guilty of endless interminable pages of excruciatingly boring and redundant writing – when employed to a fault.

Without going into detail here, the theory’s pretty evident, if you think about it. Ask yourself at the outset: do you want to ‘see’ something that isn’t very interesting or important anyway? No? Then why would we, your readers, want to see it?

The solution: if it’s necessary to advance the plot but not that fascinating then don’t show it, tell it – get it out of the way – and do your readers a favour by advancing the story without endless meandering verbiage.

If you feel compelled to ‘show’ absolutely everything then even your hero preparing a ham and cheese sandwich will read like War and Peace. Yawn. Okay. It won’t exactly be Le Carre.

It won’t even be the Bible. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth’ is pure ‘tell’. (God, or whoever wrote his stuff, was a notorious plagiarist but he did have a knack for eloquent prose.)

The techniques to do this should be known by all writers; if not, you risk making the activity harder on yourself than need be whilst simultaneously boring your reader, alienating editors and potentially losing that big publishing deal.

And I ought to know. I am learning – and continue to learn – the hard way as well.

In short, there’s a reason it’s referred to as ‘telling a story’  and not ‘showing a story’. Long live the non-rhetorical expository passage!