Far from being a hard and fast rule of writing (or professional writing advice), the common adage “show, don’t tell” is better described on a spectrum of style.

Firmly on the “tell” side, many early writers struggle to include the details necessary to create fullness in their scenes.

Harriet cautiously peeked around the corner. She couldn’t see far, but a face suddenly appeared that was so hideous she screamed and ran in a panic.

Early drafts can look like this. There’s nothing wrong with just getting words on a page to tell the story. A common and largely successful (in terms of wide audience appeal) application of “showing” turns to details to evoke emotion from the audience.

Harriet peeked around the corner, allowing herself to glimpse just the first sliver of darkness. The light didn’t go as far as she’d hoped. The stark edge stood its ground less than six inches from the corner. She stood staring at the line, wondering how much nerve she had to step nearer, when a figure separated from the dark and shoved its hissing, hollow-eyed face into her own, bearing its stained teeth.

The emotion doesn’t have to be horror, obviously, but this genre uses this style most consistently. On the farther end of the spectrum, writers paint with precision in their detail, so much so that their work requires more thought to connect what’s given. It requires more of the reader. It also relies heavily on contextual evidence within the full work.

It lurked there, they said. Harriet hugged the corner, feeling her pulse in the tips of her fingers as she gripped the wallpaper. Darkness waited, a hole that stared back.

Authors accomplish this end of the spectrum in different ways, often sounding drastically different from one another. Some turn the focus so strongly on the emotion that the details are not about the subject at all. They select what to show based on the emotion connected to them. This occasionally means the reader gets lost (in the above example, one can later wonder whether there was a face at all, or if Harriet just made it up) and some readers go crazy for it.

Teaching and “Show, Don’t Tell”

What someone means when they tell you “show, don’t tell” depends on you, the project, and their comprehension of your work. This is definitely no law of storytelling. Instead, it’s a call to focus and refine your use of an essential element: Detail.

Joshua Henkin, in his guest post with Writers Digest, claims “show, don’t tell” is the great lie of writing workshops. He says, “To my mind, the phrase “Show, don’t tell” is a wink and a nod, an implicit compact between a lazy teacher and a lazy student when the writer needs to dig deeper to figure out what isn’t working in his story.”

Let’s hope members of your workshop aren’t this vicious!

No one can make a writer write their story differently. This is important to bear in mind in workshop settings or critique groups. When this phrase comes up, something has failed in the communication from the mind to the paper to the reader. It’s about as vague as “dig deeper” without telling the person why they’re digging. Essentially, this phrase means, “Write the story better”. If it’s not followed by specific direction, it’s flimsy and hollow.

A better suggestion may be to ask what the reader is supposed to feel in the scene and discuss details that can support that effect. Or ask what part of the scene should be the most important, or critical, to the story? From there, those who have read the work can weigh in on the potential choices within the scene, providing the writer a number of options and directions to explore.

Many will still treat this advice as a cure-all for something they don’t care to identify. For others, this simple phrase is going to be a valuable stepping stone in learning to write creatively. While it’s not a magic technique to instantly make poor writing great, take it as a reminder that any detail on the page should allow the reader to experience the story, not just hear what happened.










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