If you’ve ever gone to a writing class or been part of a critiquing group or read a writing book or really done anything involving writing in the English speaking world, you’ve probably heard this a million times.
“Show, don’t tell”.
It’s a phrase that had been hammered into every writer for decades. In some writing circles it is considered a mortal sin, and the root of all evil. If there is anything wrong with your work, it must be that you are telling and not showing.
But what does that phrase really mean, and does it even make sense? I mean, if you’re writing a first person narrative wouldn’t you narrate (tell) your novel? Also, aren’t writers supposed to tell a story? So why would telling be so bad?
Some of the confusion probably comes from the phrase itself.
First of all, I’m pretty sure that it’s not grammatically correct. I know that’s just me being nit-picky, but isn’t the whole phrase about being nit-picky? So shouldn’t it at least be a normally structured sentence?
That a side, in novel writing you don’t literally show anything, you write it. So, “show” really isn’t a great word to describe what is meant. What I understand is the meaning of “show” is really “action”. Us writers want to have an active rather than passive voice in our writing, so it would make sense to also have action in our story.
Show Action not tell.
The next problem word is “Tell”. This word has way too many positive writerly connotations to ever be appropriate for this phrase. Novel writers tell stories. Indie writers tell critics where to stuff it. News writers tell it like it is. In this bright, beautiful world of telling, it’s very difficult to understand it in a negative light.
So, in this phrase, what does “Tell” really mean? Well, I believe it refers to exposition also known as an info dump. We’ve all seen these before, it’s those really boring and completely unrealistic monologue moments when a character vomits up their entire life story for no believable reason. It’s when something is explained rather than demonstrated through a character’s actions.
Show Action not tell explanation.
Action not explanation is so much more clear, it tells you what your supposed to be writing and what your not, in three easy words that actually make sense. It’s kind of strange that someone hasn’t ditched the old phrase a long time ago. Too bad this new and improved phrase also isn’t grammatically correct.