Jane MacDonald


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Three Looks at "Show, Don't Tell"
Probably the "rule" cited most in writing groups is "show, don't tell." Then
the arguments start. I asked two highly articulate writers, Dave Swinford and Alan
Girling, to let me post here their thoughtful essays on this matter, and, of course,
reserved the last word for myself. I believe most of the points that come up in the
"show-tell" arguments are covered here, and hope this page will go some way
toward clarifying things for people who are a bit shell-shocked by all the sound and
fury. -- J.M.
                                                                                                     © 2002 Dave Swinford
"Show, Don't Tell": What It Means

by Dave Swinford

A majority of prose is written to inform, and the intent is to engage the reader's
intellect. The basic sentence structure states or sums up, connecting one statement
to the next to lead the reader to some sort of conclusion. Indeed, all the sentences I
have so far used (including this one) are statements that sum up and thereby inform.
In a very real sense, informative prose summarizes the key information it wishes to

By contrast, the intent of fictional prose is to engage the reader's imagination.
This cannot be accomplished without also engaging the intellect, but what makes
fiction succeed is its ability to create an illusion that the events being described are
happening as the reader reads about them. Fiction does not simply summarize what
happened. Fiction attempts to dramatize the events in a manner that draws the
reader into the fictional reality.

Therefore, my own personal version of "Show, don't tell" has become:

              Dramatize, don't summarize.

Since most of our communications are intended to inform, it's not surprising that
we have a natural tendency to summarize rather than dramatize. In a sense, all
statements summarize, but some summarize more completely than others. Perhaps a
few examples will best illustrate my point.

"He went to the window and looked out." This is a summary statement. One
way to test this assertion is to apply what I think of as the "short test," which
consists of the simplest sentence or Actor - Action or Noun - Verb structure.

"He went" - Does this engage the imagination? Does it make a picture? Can one
see him "wenting"?

If "went" is too general and non-specific, perhaps we can improve by selecting a
more active verb.

"He walked to the window and looked out." Short test: "he walked" - Can one
imagine him walking? Can one picture it? If so, this is a more dramatic way of
stating/describing his actions.

The good thing about "walk" is the number of synonyms (part of why I chose
this example).

"He strolled to the window"
"He crept to the window"
"He swaggered to the window"
"He ambled to the window"
"He staggered to the window" and more.

When the short test is applied, all these verbs produce specific images. Even
more importantly, the images have specific emotional connotations. "He strolled"
feels quite different from "He crept" or "He swaggered."

Successful fiction also involves the reader's emotions. Therefore, if one can
select verbs that engage the imagination and involve the emotions, shouldn't those be
the preferred choice, especially if one's intent is to dramatize rather than

Apply the short test to "to be" forms:

"She is" - Can you see this?
"She was" - Can one picture her "wassing?"

Fact is, verbs such as "looks/looked" or the "to be" forms are what I think of as
conditional verbs. The use or meaning of the verb is conditional on additional
information. "She looks" might become "She looks up" or "She looks tired." "She
is" may become "She is beautiful" or "She is president of the bank" or various other
possibilities. In every case, to make a conditional verb into something one can
imagine/picture/feel, one must add more information. Conditional verbs are not bad
usage, but they often lessen the dramatic impact. Conditional verbs are better
for summing up and drawing connections than they are for dramatizing.

One may also apply the "short test" to nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Broad
category nouns, such as "vehicle, animal, fruit" are harder to imagine/picture than
specific examples; thus, the often repeated guideline that it is better to use specifics
than general types. The same applies to adjectives. As for adverbs, the most
common problem with them is that they summarize actions rather than
describe/dramatize them.

"Do you think they'll really come?" he asked anxiously. The "anxiously" sums
up. To dramatize one might write: He shifted from foot to foot. "Do you think
they'll really come?"

Just in case I've only managed to confuse the issue, here's one final set of examples that
may clarify.

(1) Jim hit Sam in the nose. (A summary statement.)

(2) Jim poked Sam in the nose. (A more active verb, a verb one can more easily
imagine/picture, but still basically a summary.)

(3) Jim threw a stiff right jab, catching Sam flush on the nose. Cartilage crunched
and Sam's head snapped back. Blood spurted, splattering crimson drops onto Sam's
white tee shirt.

"Not fair, man." Blood oozed between Sam's fingers. "You broke my node."

Jim flexed his right hand, barely aware of his stinging knuckles. "That'll teach
you not to mess with my computer." (Dramatic and full of sensory details.)

If possible, dramatize rather than summarize, and if you need to inform the
reader with description or exposition or narrative, use as many dramatic verbs and
sensory details as possible so as to more fully engage the reader's imagination.
When in doubt, apply the "short test."

You may write to Dave by clicking


                                                                                                  © 2002 Alan Girling

When to Show, When to Tell

by Alan Girling

In writing workshops everywhere, a rather one-sided debate about 'showing versus
telling' rages, with 'telling' coming out the clear loser most of the time. A lot of the
discussion revolves around giving the issue some perspective. Are we talking about
an absolute rule to follow ("show, don't tell") or is it a matter of style and taste, like
choosing our diction, turns of phrase? Or is it a mere trend, something we'd better
do if we want to get published today but which yesterday's writers never worried
about and which tomorrow's may laugh at as quaint, like an overabundance of Tom

To me, it's neither an absolute rule nor a trend (though I suppose everything is a
matter of taste). To me, both 'showing' and 'telling' serve their own functions.

One of the primary characteristics of good writing is subordination, that is, using
stylistic means to indicate what's more important to know, what less, or what's
intended to have the strongest impact and what weaker. Distinguishing levels of
importance / impact helps to maintain focus, create depth and vary pace. Without
such variance, the writing can come across as flat, one-note, unrelenting, running
on, one might say frantic at one extreme, tedious at the other. Certainly all 'tell' and
no 'show' would most easily suffer, because one usually 'tells' what one considers
less significant. But the opposite, all 'show' and no 'tell' can also suffer the same,
though skillful writers are able to build subordination by other means into their
story and still maintain an all 'show' approach.

I think also a lot depends on the story, the material, what needs to be there. A
story that's straightforward, maybe action-oriented, plot driven or on the surface,
would probably have minimal 'tell'. It just 'shows' whatever happens. (To some
extent, I feel the influence of movies and genre writing behind the formation of the
rule: in other words, the rule arises from the demands of the mass market: what sells
the most becomes a precept for good writing).

On the other hand, if the story is of the more complex sort--character or
issue-driven, with complex structural or time considerations, some degree of 'tell'
might provide useful summary, explanatory information we need before we can
understand the whole story. It would be awfully literal-minded of a follower of the
rule to say this sentence,

"When he was young, he was a heavy smoker"

was wrong because it was 'tell' when the focus of the story was a present event
(should we 'show' him smoking heavily in elaborate detail when its purpose is to
simply add dimension to the character and maybe explain something of what's going
on in the story as it's happening?).

The point then becomes not whether something is 'show' or 'tell', but whether the
writing, that is, the style works, is interesting and fits the established voice. For
example, all of the following are 'tell':

"When he was young, he was a heavy smoker." (Pedestrian, but simple, clear.)
"When he was young, he smoked like a chimney." (Cliché.)
"As a kid, he put away two packs a day." (Colloquial.)
"As a kid, he puffed his lungs black." (Visual, expressive.)

And any one of these can work in the proper context. They do stand out starkly here,
but again, it's not 'tell' that's the problem, often; it's how it's handled, how we
receive the information: whether it stands out, is unrelieved, overly distancing; or
whether it is subordinated skillfully, woven into the main action, linked seamlessly to
the 'show'. That's what can make a difference.

You may write to Alan at kalgirl@telus.net.

                                                                                                    © 2002 Jane MacDonald

"Show, Don't Tell": A Matter of Genre and Personal Preference

by Jane MacDonald

Two years ago. when I first read Dave Swinford's explanation of exactly what "show,
don't tell" means, I thought it was the best I'd ever seen, and I still do. In it, he said,
"Dramatize, don't summarize." He also spoke of using vivid verbs as opposed to dull
ones--don't use walked, use strolled or swaggered or crept, verbs that call up specific
images. Yet I kept seeing stories and novels that violated his precepts. Why was

Since then I have paid close attention to the issue, and have learned some things.
One of those things is that genre is everything in this debate. If you are writing
action fiction--a thriller, a romance--then by all means write your story by
"showing," not "telling." Don't say your character got winded when he ran up the
hill; let him run up the hill, gasp, etc.

On the other hand, the fact is that much literary fiction these days is heavily
"tell." I have in my hand a copy of Mary Gordon's story, "The Deacon," in the O.
Henry Prize Stories of 2000 volume. There's much less dialogue than in the
average action story; much of the story is told in passive voice, a no-no for action
stories; Gordon's verbs are ordinary, workaday words; there is no tension in the
usual sense. Much of the story is description of what goes on in the head of Sister
Joan, a hard-headed administrator, and, by the end, you know she's learned a hard
lesson. Had Gordon posted that story in most writing groups for criticism, she'd
have been roasted for too much "tell." Yet I rather liked the story.

I liked it, but it didn't really move me. I prefer a little more action; somehow that
manages to engage me with characters better than Gordon's style does. I have that
same trouble with a lot of literary fiction. Barbara Kingsolver, in her introduction to
Best American Short Stories of 2001, says she wants to learn something new from
a story. That is not my objective; frankly, if I want to learn things, I keep my eyes
open, or read case histories or science books. What I want from fiction is to be
moved, or amused, and, jaded as I am, I seldom get those pleasures from short
stories. When I do, it usually happens when I've read a story that's a little more
"show" than "tell."

Now, is Kingsolver's objective, or mine, the proper one for a reader of fiction?
Maybe there's yet another objective I haven't thought of that one or more of you has
when reading fiction. Gordon obviously wanted to show a woman learning an
important lesson, and she chose to do it mostly by "telling." I think she succeeded in
her objective, but I didn't get my emotional fix. Should she have chosen a more
active way of telling her story, so she would please me more?

By now you should see that what I am getting at is that there is no "proper" way
to write, no "proper" aim for a writer. What pleases me doesn't usually please the
editors of "best of" anthologies or literary magazines. Result? I have had the O.
Henry volume for a year or so, and still haven't read all the stories in it. Is that bad?
Not really. I'm sure many other people have devoured them with great pleasure, but
I am not confident that they will please me, so I am not drawn to finish that book.

I have friends who love what I write; I have friends who think my writings are
no good at all. I have actually sold stories that took a horrible beating in a workshop,
because an editor thought they would please the readership that editor aims for. I
think I could write "literary" stories of the Gordon variety if I put my mind to it,
but I don't think it would be any fun--my own stories wouldn't give me the pleasure
I look for in reading. I have read and greatly enjoyed some "literary" novels; most of them
leave me cold. If I want literary fame, I'll have to bite the bullet and write the kind
of thing that brings literary fame. If I want megabucks, I'll have to write really good
chick-lit or something like what Tom Clancy writes. But doing that wouldn't be any
fun for me, and I write for fun, and a little recognition, not for literary fame or
money. Of course, no matter what my objective might come to be, I'd have to do the
requisite writing very well indeed, and maybe I couldn't.

The imperative is not "show, don't tell." The imperative is, write what you want
to write, the way you want to write it, then see if you can find someone who enjoys
what you wrote. The only thing I can guarantee is that no matter what you write, a
fairly large number of people will tell you to write it some other way. They mean
well--they are telling you to write something that will please them. Of course, what
you really should do is write something that will please me, but I lack the nerve to
insist on that. And even if everybody succeeded in heeding my call, there I would be
with tons of stuff I'd love to read and not nearly enough time to do it. Meanwhile, all
those thousands of other people who don't share my tastes would have nothing to
read at all.

Some people like Stockhausen, some like Mozart, some like hiphop, some like
rock and roll. If I were running the radio stations to suit myself, a lot of people
would be out of luck.

So I'll continue to critique people's stories and tell them to write the way I want
them to. But I won't be even a little disappointed if they don't take my advice. I
probably won't take most of theirs, either, though I'll be very glad to get it, because
theirs might be just the advice I need and am willing to take. Tell or show, it's up to
you. You have to figure out what your potential readers want you to write, and
write that, or write what you please and hope you find readers. But you'd better use
impeccable grammar and punctuate correctly, or I'll get all high and mighty and
you'll rue the day you skipped that class on semicolons.

You may write to Jane at janemac98@lycos.com.