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3 Reasons Why “Show, Don’t Tell It” Is Bad Writing Advice

“Show it, don’t tell it” is probably the most frequently quoted screenwriting advice (though you’ll hear it for novels and short stories too). And at its heart, yes it’s good stuff: OF COURSE we want to “show” our viewers and readers things; OF COURSE we don’t want to be “on the nose”, but use subtext instead; and OF COURSE we want to be thought of as “good” writers. Durr.

But on surface level, “Show it, don’t tell it” is NOT good advice, especially for those writers struggling. Here’s 3 reasons why:

1. … The phrase has become redundant and/or unhelpful.  Anyone who has spent even five minutes browsing the web about writing (never mind attended a course or written something) has heard the advice, “show it, don’t tell it”.  Just about every writer thinks s/he knows what it means … and that it DOESN’T apply to *their* work. I’ve lost count of the number of writers who have come to me complaining someone has recommended “show it, don’t tell it” to them – WTF? They’re not a newbie, y’know! “Show it don’t tell it” has become synonymous with “bad writing”. Of course no writer is willing to believe their writing is “bad”, thus anyone who recommends this supposed advice must be “wrong”. Basically, script readers, screenwriting tutors and article writers have given out this advice so often, the phrase itself has in essence become a shorthand way of saying, “start again”. This is not helpful, especially when writers aren’t sure *which* bits are problematic. What’s more, arguably “show it, don’t tell it” has become a “get out of jail free” card for poor feedback-givers who simply can’t be bothered to break a work’s problems down.  More on this, next.

2.) … It needs breaking down to specifics for the individual writer/work. Typically, “show it, don’t tell it” means your characters are saying exactly what they mean or want all the time, whilst probably hinting at their motivations, feelings and/or back story at the same time. For example:

KELLY: Make sure you swing by the shop and get some milk.

DAVID: I don’t have any money on me; I left my wallet at home. I can’t believe it; I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on at the moment. I’m so stressed ‘cos of this presentation at work. My boss is looking to fire people.

KELLY: It’s okay, I went to school with Cheryl, the woman who works there; she’s the assistant manager. She’ll let you have it, just make sure you pay her next time you see her. 

The above example “tells it” far too much because first off, we probably don’t need to know Kelly and David need milk anyway. If it’s not part of the “direct” story, then it is extraneous. We get the feeling they’re talking about the milk just so David can tell us he’s feeling stressed; also, we suspect maybe we’re hearing about Cheryl because she will figure somewhere in the story next. No thanks! So: CHOP, CHOP.

BUT there’s more than one way of being “extraneous”. ANOTHER way stories “tell” too much is by characters describing their emotional response or state too insightfully, with what we might regard “too much” emotional maturity, especially in the case of young people, but also characters of any age:

PAUL: Why do you drink too much?

KEITH: I started drinking when I was fourteen. Looking back now, I see it was to numb the pain. My parents never cared about me and were always working. There was this one guy who supposedly took an interest, but he was grooming me. Before I knew it, he was abusing me. I couldn’t tell anyone; I felt too ashamed. The abuse stopped when I left home, but I never went back. My parents never got why. Now I have my own son I live in fear of it happening to him. 

The above will happen in genre screenplays, but especially in personal dramas and YA novels. In other words, characters will name their pain very obviously, maybe even returning to it over and over, with various other characters facilitating this by asking them questions about how they feel.

BUT AGAIN: whilst an over-reliance on general dialogue or and/or over description to “break open” characters’ motivations, feelings or  back story are the most common reasons for “show it, don’t tell it”, there are others too, such as:

– A dedicated character whose job it is, sometimes literally, to facilitate the lead’s emotions: this especially happens in the case of doctor, counsellor or therapist characters, but also best friend and mentor characters, plus wives/girlfriends.

– An “overtelling” via some kind of “back story as prologue” (especially a traumatic event) before the story “really” begins in order to set up the main character, especially one that is otherwise standoffish or isolationist.

– In screenplays, a reliance on scene description that is too detailed, in the mistaken belief these random objects – frequently photos or jewellery, but also mementos of trips to the seaside like shells and stones – will give us a supposedly visual insight into a character’s mindset or motivations. Frequently these will join up with that “overtelling” of that traumatic event mentioned previously. In the case of novels, a tendency to overly describe various tiny details (especially weather, but also the rooms characters are in) may also create a similar problem.

– A reliance on a character with a special need that means other characters need to speak for them (for whatever reason, but especially via sign language or a because another character cannot speak English). This may mean potential jeopardy or tension in the scene is lost because too much “translating” is going on.

… And the list goes on. As you can see, merely saying “show it, don’t tell it” to a writer is not very illuminating. They need it broken down by a script reader or editor WHERE the problematic areas are; WHY they present a particular issue in the story that is being told and WHAT they might want to consider by way of tackling them.

And finally:

3.) … Sometimes you NEED to tell! Any form of creative writing, whether screenwriting, novel or short story, needs a sense of balance. This means that a) yes you need visuals b) yes you need subtext but c) yes you need to be OVERT at times, too! Whilst it’s obviously not desirable to have characters saying exactly what they mean all the time, or handling weird and random objects, or naming their pain with pinpoint accuracy, occasionally a well-timed moment of dialogue and/or action that underlines its deeper meaning work BRILLIANTLY. What’s more, it’s typically these moments that get remembered, because they have the ability to take the reader or viewer’s breath away. The key is knowing when these moments can work and why – and not overdoing it. Yet so many writers (and script readers and editors) have swallowed “show it, don’t tell it” WHOLE, which means these potentially devastating and/or amazing moments of raw truth or emotion get chopped. Such a shame.

So, next time someone gives the feedback “show it, don’t tell it” — TAKE A DEEP BREATH.

Could the reader mean one of the problems listed above? Could you be trying too hard with subtext; overtelling back story; or having your characters say too much? Or could the reader have jumped the gun on that notion of “raw truth/emotion”?

It’s your work. You decide.

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25 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why “Show, Don’t Tell It” Is Bad Writing Advice”

  1. Watch any current BBC/ITV drama. They are crammed full of “Tell for God’s sake it’s quicker” moments.

    Mother: What’s wrong with him?
    Doctor: It’s a routine case of expositional dialogue.
    Mother: Why are you doing that?
    Doctor: So the viewer knows how important it is to get these facts across quickly – besides it’s time for me to shag a nurse in the broom cupboard.
    Mother: Why are you closing the curtains?
    Nurse: We always do that on TV hospital dramas. Budget cuts at the Beeb mean we can’t afford to pay the actors to lie in bed when they are not actually acting.

    Detective: Look at this
    CUT TO:
    Computer Screen full of every single piece of backstory needed to set the plot up.

    (Note: this is just bringing up to date the old “Random book from shelf falls open at page describing specifics of how vampires/werewolves/local monsters can be killed” technique.)

  2. The rule “Show, don’t Tell” is still highly needed, in my opinion, but it should be changed to “Dramatise, don’t Tell”. The writers I have helped in the past struggle to identify which parts of their stories are the most important elements, so they ‘tell’ the reader what happens rather than ‘dramatising’ the scene. For instance, a writer might write “David returned home to face another argument with his wife, and immediately stormed out to find a bar.” This is fine if the argument is not relevant to the plot (yet I would argue that if it’s not relevant, then cut it!), but if it is, then the scene needs to be dramatised – the reader needs to ‘see’ what happened and ‘hear’ that argument in the form of dialogue.

    1. Absolutely Mark, many of the writers I deal with need this advice, but “Show it, don’t tell it” does little to illuminate them on what they *need* to do. “Dramatise, don’t tell” is far more helpful, IMHO.

  3. But when characters are constantly reviewing what we’ve seen and/or talking about a third person no in a scene the feeling is show me, don’t tell me IMHO

  4. Great post – I’ve always been told “Show, don’t tell” by various people since I started writing and the other being: “Tell the story without any dialogue” but sometimes a zinger of a line delivers punch and emotion along with the action.

    What would be a great would be an example of how to do point 2 between Paul & Keith without so much “on the nose” dialogue? Would you do it slowly over a couple of scenes, revealing Keith’s past and his fears for his son? Just wondering! Thanks!!

    1. Tough to know really Rishi I’m afraid – depends on the story, genre, tone etc and my example is not a “real” script! 😉

  5. My favourite ever exposition scene ever ever ever is Bubs in The Wire – they’re looking at the photos of the hat scene, and he’s explaining who everyone is to the detectives. Helps the audience get a visual on the basic structure of the drug sellers’ organisation, as well as check the faces, as well as motivating us to remember them, as well as simply telling because they’ve got a huge cast to get set up as well as setting up Bubs as an amazing character. Though.. I do realise that the police station wall covered in pictures and string is a bit of a worn trope. Do they even have these? Nevertheless, works like a charm in The Wire and I didn’t pin it as exposition on first watching: it was too entertaining. Entertaining is a low goal in some ways – but it’s also a GIVEN. So much theory forgets to mention entertaining the watcher/reader.

  6. “Joan hated Wednesdays. It was bad for all the ordinary reasons but especially because it was going-to-the-baths day. This was just another thing that set her apart; everyone else in her class loved going to the baths. Everyone else loved Wednesdays”

    The above extract is the beginning of a short story that I’ve recently been working on. I think parsing it might add something to the debate here.

    The opening 3-word sentence is unequivocally ‘telling’ – being a simple statement that Joan hates Wednesdays. But hold on a minute; good creative writing causes the reader to ask questions, it never gives the answers. Giving the answers is actually what ‘show don’t tell’ actually refers to. In the above opening, the reader is forced to invest cognitively in Joan and try to unpick her world view, “Why does Joan hate Wednesdays?” – “Joan’s a child, the vast majority of children love going to the baths but Joan hates it – why?” – “what are ‘the other things’ that set Joan apart?”

    So right at the start of this story, the reader’s aren’t simply finding things out about Joan and her world they are investing emotionally in her psychology and predicament. The reader becomes an active part of Joan’s world not simply a passive observer of it. “Telling” writing turns readers into passive observers, writing that avoids “telling” turns them into active participants. That’s what we should be aiming for, it’s what “show don’t tell” really means.

  7. Thank you SO MUCH for this article!!!! I am writing my first novel, part 1 of a fantasy and historical fiction saga with characters that live in different eras, and several individual stories (kinda like short tales) that merge into a greater, general story. And I have had so much trouble regarding in what order I should tell those small stories so that the plot is better understood, and defining what story is the main one, and what stories should be shortened. I received the advice to “show don’t tell” in some parts where my editor thinks I’m excessively describing things in certain stories that are not important for the main plot, and I didn’t understand half what he told me to change, or why to do it….until I read this. Now I understand what are my exact problems. Thank you again!

      1. I completely agree with you that those who scatter gun that sort of advice about without providing concrete examples of how to do it are much less than helpful, by the way.


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