Thursday, September 21, 2017

“Show, Don’t Tell” Must Die

If we could obliterate the commonly used critique, “Show, don’t tell,” today, it wouldn’t be soon enough. Why?

It’s pithy … too pithy.


The phrase is short and sweet, a three-word Band-Aid that can be applied to many different failings. It may seem useful to have a versatile phrase which quickly encapsulates the issue and suggests a fix. Problem is, it’s so dense it tends to require extensive follow-up explanation. I’ve read lengthy articles on the topic, page after page, as a supposedly competent writer tries to unpack what “show, don’t tell” really means.  

Worse, there’s a great divergence of opinion on that subject. Some say it’s a call for more detail or vibrancy, as in the apocryphal Chekhov quote, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Sometimes it’s a call to make a passive moment more active. Others suggest the rule really only applies to emotion, where you need to demonstrate realistic feeling rather than flatly indicate that it’s happening.

But if your three words could be indicating any or all of the above, how is the writer to know? From context, maybe. Or maybe it’s a vague and lazy panacea, when something more specific would be appropriate.

It’s most often said to those who understand it least.

Due to lack of experience, beginners are the most prone to all of the faults listed above. If they knew how to do it better, they would. Delivering a deceptively simple catch-phrase about showing instead of telling doesn’t really explain the complexities of what needs to be fixed. It may be fine to nudge an experienced author on occasion if one of their scenes is flat, but there’s a good chance a new writer’s whole story suffers from multiple different show-v-tell flaws. Giving them three words is frankly almost no better than giving them nothing.

It’s the hammer of the critique world, and it turns all problems into a nail.

There’s an expression, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. “Show, don’t tell,” is likely to be the first and most common of all criticisms for beginning writers. It becomes the first tool applied to their work, and then in turn is the first tool they lob at someone else when they get a chance to critique, repeated ad nauseam until more subtle tools have been learned.

By golly, I’m going to stick someone they way I got stuck.

Maybe I’m venturing too far into psychology here, but I’ve seen critiques get a little … shall we say competitive? I think there’s a lot of writers who, when first jabbed by “show, don’t tell,” particularly if it’s delivered in a snide tone, hold on to that moment and then pay it forward with a certain amount of vengeful relish. “My drill sergeant pounded it into me, and now I’m going to pound it into you,” I can almost see in their eyes, hear in the tone of their voice.

I could be wrong about this one. Maybe I’m just personally lousy about showing too often, and well-intentioned advisers really needed to hammer the point home to save me. But I’d swear at least some of the time I could see the “gotcha!” in their eyes.

What should we do instead?

I stand by my headline. I think the phrase “show, don’t tell” should die. It would be better for most writers, and especially beginning ones, to get a much more targeted criticism instead of an inscrutable mantra. If it’s too passive, tell them it’s too passive. If they’re glossing over details that would be more interesting if depicted thoroughly, say that. If you don’t think the emotional content is believable or gripping enough, explain how it could be more vibrant.

Besides, if the person delivering critique is supposed to be enough of a writing hot-shot to give advice to anyone else, shouldn’t they be able to do more than just repeat the same three words over and over? Where’s their originality?

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