Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice: Show Don’t Tell

Welcome back readers, and welcome to the second installment of Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! Where we, one week at a time, will be taking a look at all those cliche, kitschy sayings that always seem to follow people in the wake of any writing project. Those one-sentence colloquialisms that are tossed out by the dozen on Facebook, Tumblr, or even in real life.

You know, the quick, easy to remember, easy to spout off stuff that sounds fairly smart.

Well … is it? Because last week I compared these sayings to a sculpture that had been carved in a game of telephone: something that’s been passed around so much and so often that while the general shape is sort of in line with things, the rest of the details are more caricatures of actual elements then real, detailed items.

And this summer? For the next few months, Being a Better Writer is going to dig into these bits of cliche advice and see what they really have to offer. Is there wisdom in there? Something we can glean from a such a distilled saying? Or has it been passed on and reduced for brevity so many times that the saying is effectively worthless?

Well, that’s what the Summer of Cliche Writing Advice is all about. We’re going to break these sayings down, And this week’s quick quip of choice?

Show Don’t Tell.

Okay, let’s just get this out the way fast. Like pulling a bandaid off or rebreaking the limb so that it can be set properly. Show don’t tell?

Wrong. Just wrong.

Those of you who have been following BaBW for a few years already know this, of course, because this topic has been covered before. But for those of you that are new, accept this now. “Show don’t tell?” It’s bad advice.

Some of you are already itching to click that “close” button, I can guess. Shaking your head and muttering to yourself “Yes, but Ms. McNulty in fourth grade said that we should always show not tell. And everyone says show don’t tell. What is this guy saying?”

Well, how about this: Have you ever read a book that’s 100% show, all the time, every paragraph. I can answer that one, though you should take the time to think about it so you can come to the conclusion yourself.

No. You haven’t. Ever. Books that are 100% show don’t get published. Because they’re boring as anything.

Let me put this another way. Have you ever heard of a book having too much “purple prose?” Purple prose is what it’s called when a book goes overboard with its prose, describing anything and everything in flowery detail.

Yeah, it’s what happens when a book packs in way too much show. You end up with a title that spends paragraph after paragraph describing (or showing) the slightest detail. And, to try and keep it from being too repetitive or boring, with a whole lot of metaphor.

Which, it’s worth pointing out, grinds the book to the halt. Because it’s really hard to get through even something fairly simple if everything has to be shown, shown, shown. Making a story all show easily doubles or triples the time spent in a scene … even a short one.

No, the reality of it is that the books you read are a mix of show and tell. Because there are some things that just aren’t worth going into showy detail over, but can be simplified by telling the audience. Just as there are bits that are better shown than told. Depending on the narrative style and the perspective, each story will find a balance, be that 50% tell and 50% show in an even split, or something like 60% tell and 40% show for a more analytical character’s perspective.

See, what we really should be saying is “Show versus Tell,” rather than “Show, don’t Tell,” Because it’s a balance. Like a seesaw. You may want to tilt your story one way or another depending on various factors, but in the end it’s still a balancing act. You need both.

So then … where does this “Show don’t Tell” idea come from? Well, actually, this one I lay the blame for at the feet of public education.

See, when a lot of young writers start out, they default to “tell” by nature. They’re writing about something, so they tell what they’re writing about. It’s a straightforward enough approach.

Now, 100% tell is just as bad as 100% show, but since we tend to default at first to telling rather than showing, teachers tell their students “show, don’t tell” because it’s an easy, all-or-nothing phrase that pushes students toward using more show. Much like we tell children in early grades that you can’t go below zero in math, before swiftly switching gears with “Surprise, we totally lied. You can.” show don’t tell is a way of pushing young writers to at least be thinking about trying to show rather than the habitual tell.

Problem is, we never rescind this little bit of “wisdom.” So unlike math classes, where it will eventually be acknowledged that no, negative numbers are a thing and you’ll need to learn what they are, educational English classes never really sit these students down and say “Oh by the way, you actually should have some tell in there.” And so “show don’t tell” is passed on despite the fact that any author worth their salt could open up a page of their books and point to where they’ve used both show and tell on a page.

Basically, using the saying is the equivalent of an accountant or a mathematician reminding those around them that negative numbers aren’t a thing while using them on a daily basis.

Yeah. It’s a bad saying. Don’t use it.

Instead, use ‘Show versus Tell.” Realize that you don’t want one or the other completely independent. You want a balance. It might be 60-40, 40-60, or even 50-50, depending on your story, your viewpoint, etc. But it’ll be a balance.

Unfortunately, “Show don’t Tell” has been around for so long it’s almost one of the codifiers for “cliche writing advice” which is all the worse when it’s wrong. A story of pure show is blank and boring as anything, and nearly impossible to get through.

Show versus Tell is the one we should be repeating. And using when we sit down and put fingers to the keyboard.

So go out and do just that.

This has been Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! Good luck, and get writing!

Remember, if you’ve enjoyed these articles thus far and the other writing advice found on the site, it always helps to think about supporting the author. You can buy his books, or be a supporter on Patreon! Either one helps keep the site ad-free and ensures content keeps on coming!

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