When Should You Tell, Not Show?

Writers are always beaten over the head with the admontion “Show, don’t tell.” It’s not bad advice by any means. Often it’s pretty good advice. But, I know there are times when you should tell instead. For instance, in my Nanowrimo, I appreciate the word inflation, but I’m well aware that no one actually wants to read 2 pages of Yui buying a dress. No matter how much of a plot point said dress becomes before the end of the chapter.

And some of the advice out there is, um… Not so good. This page says you must always follow this rule because it makes your readers work more to interpret the story, and they like that. Um, that’s not my experience. At all. —When Should You Tell, Not Show? (Jinnayah’s Realm)

That’s my page being cited as an example of “not so good” advice.

I don’t mind at all coming across a blogger who disagrees with something I’ve written. But my that particular document does not call “show, don’t tell” a rule, and in fact the words “show, don’t tell” don’t appear anywhere on the page.

Like a good blogger, Jinnayah has linked to the page so that readers can click the link and judge the contents for themselves. If readers do that, they will find that the title of my page is “Show, Don’t (Just) Tell,” and that the last section is titled “Sometimes, ‘telling’ can be a good thing.” Which means that my page is hardly a good example of what Jinnayah is complaining about.

Jinnayah’s site seems to be about writing fanfiction. Any writer should pay attention to the needs of his or her audience, so it may be true that Jinnayah’s readers prefer telling to showing. Fanfic is all about playing in and with a world that someone else has already created and that the reader already knows well. If I write Star Trek fanfiction (as I did when I was in high school), I can refer to a tribble or Spock’s arched eyebrow or Scotty’s temper, and I’ll know a Star Trek fan will automatically know what those details mean. Since the characters are already well-established, it’s a waste of time in fanfic to generate from scratch a new way for the reader to identify with each character that you re-use in your fanfic. That kind of emotional bridge-building gets in the way of the fanfic story you want to tell.

But I think it’s probably more likely that what Jinnayah and others object to — “2 pages of Yui buying a dress” — is not actually showing, but instead long, drawn-out telling with a lot of wordy details.

In Jinnayah’s defense, it’s true that my handout makes no attempt to explain when one should tell instead of show. But I wrote this handout to help me teach college students who tell habitually, giving long lists of things that catch their interest as they pop into their heads.