“Show, Don’t Tell” | Still Sound Advice, or Lame Idea?

Marylee MacDonald is the author of MONTPELIER TOMORROW, a novel about caregiving and ALS. Her short story collection, BONDS OF LOVE & BLOOD, was a finalist in the Foreword Reviews' INDIEFAB Awards. Her fiction has won Gold and Silver Medals from Readers' Favorites International Book Awards, the Barry Hannah Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and many others.

“Show, don’t tell.” What does it mean, and should writers pay attention to this time-worn advice? In this post I’m going to look at three writers who use narrative exposition–old-fashioned storytelling–and see what they’re doing on the “show, don’t tell” front. Let’s start with a bit of background.

show, don't tell Rowboat from "Beauties of English landscape. Drawn by Birket Foster. Engraved by Dalziel Brothers, J. Cooper ... and others"

Image from Europeana via The European Library

Wikipedia cites a passage in a Chekhov letter as the source for “show, don’t tell.”

“In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” [6]

Thus, at its most basic, “show, don’t tell” means the reader immediately sees a picture. Compare these examples:

  1. Her sister was a very good artist.
  2. Peggy stood back, and Angela unlocked her sister’s studio. Unframed canvases stood ten deep against the walls. Reds, pinks, yellows, like cupped hands floating on greenish water. Lilies pads, were they? “Why, Peggy, your work could hang next to Monet’s!”

“B” isn’t great–this is a blog post, after all–but, it’s certainly more vivid than “A.”

“Show, Don’t Tell” means the reader can get a quick flash of information about the people and objects in a scene. Often the flash of info includes figurative language–similes and metaphors. Occasionally, the writer includes a scrap of dialogue.

“Show, Don’t Tell” and Scenes

More broadly, however, “show, don’t tell” means telling the story through dramatic action. As I wrote in a previous post, dramatic scenes are where you slow the story down and let the clock tick in