Show, Don’t Tell

hemingway by paul rogers

Show, don’t tell is an admonition to fiction writers to write in a manner that allows the reader to experience the story through a character’s action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the narrator’s exposition, summarization, and description. The advice is not to be heavy-handed, or to drown the reader in adjectives, but to allow issues to emerge from the text instead.

The advice applies equally to fiction and nonfiction, but theĀ approach should not be applied to all incidents in the story. According to author James Scott Bell, ‘Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.’

Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time more concisely. A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. According to Orson Scott Card and others, ‘showing’ is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes. The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, action versus summarization. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.

According to novelist Francine Prose: ‘…many great novelists combine ‘dramatic’ showing with long sections of the flat-out authorial narration that is, I guess, what is meant by telling. And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out … when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.’

Nobel Prize winning novelist Ernest Hemingway was a notable proponent of the show, don’t tell style. His famed Iceberg Theory, also known as the ‘theory of omission,’ originates from his bullfighting treatise, ‘Death in the Afternoon’: ‘If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.’

While writers such as Prose may champion ‘the specific use of language,’ and while creative writing experts may seek to debunk misleading myths, it is nonetheless true that most great novels rely heavily upon subtext and the art of what is left unsaid. The ‘dignity’ Hemingway speaks of can be interpreted as a form of respect for the reader, who should be trusted to develop a feeling for the meaning behind the action without having the point painfully laid out for him. It could be argued that showing and not telling is what separates fiction and literature from news-writing or historical narration.

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