Show. Don’t Tell.

One of the things writers hear from their editors is “Show. Don’t t

Set of movie Noobz
Pop Culture Geek via Creative Commons, 2011

ell.” There is an aversion to exposition and description in modern writing. And for the most part, no one wants to read paragraphs upon paragraphs expounding on the history of a particular town or planet, the features of the protagonist’s car, or detailed descriptions of the room, the characters’ clothing, or the people themselves. Show. Don’t tell.

But how slavish should we follow this? Do we need to show every single thing?

Not really. As someone recently pointed out, there aren’t any books written for adults that are pure showing with no telling. Some things require exposition. And a criticism I got early on for my rather lean style of writing was, “I can’t see the characters!” And yet, as a writer, I still struggle with expository passages.

Some of this comes from knowing one’s own fictional universe well. When you know a lot about a place or a time, real or imagined, there’s a tendency to want to dump as much of it on the reader as possible. That can cause problems. Yeah, it’s really neat that you figured out a believable FTL scheme, complete with some compelling present-day theories on how that might work. Lovely. And there are people who love that stuff. But they will not be the majority of your readers. By the time most people get to the end of your detailed explanation of how you’ve combined unobtanium with handwavium dioxide to rip holes in the fabric of space-time, the reader has moved on to something more interesting, and most likely not something you wrote. So…


Tell when it’s more efficient or unavoidable. Say Mary felt sick if the scene is about what made Mary sick. If Mary being sick is a plot point and not coloring the scene, then you might want to spend a paragraph or two about the apocalyptic war being waged in Mary’s intestines and the symptoms she feels from it. All dialog, action, and description can actually lead to the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve, but there’s a reason the Show Don’t Tell drum gets beat. Again, we want a story, not a technical manual or a travelogue. You’re not JRR Tolkien, and you’re not Chuck Palahniuk. You have to live somewhere in the middle to hold our attention.

My challenge to myself to balance this out is to write the next Amargosa novel as a screenplay. I know nothing about screenplays. There are considerations to be taken, including budget, intended director, technology available, and so on. In computing, a script is a list of programs to be run in sequence and under certain conditions. One might argue that all programming is scripting, and that’s technically correct. But tell an IT professional that you’re scripting something, and he or she will assume you mean you’re installing something complex or trying to automate the running of existing programs. It’s not the program or its algorithm. It’s describing what happens in what order.

And that’s what a script is in terms of movies, television, or even plays. It’s the dialog, a minimum of description, and a running order of those scenes. It is not the movie or episode or play. It’s instructions on how to make it. The script for Reservoir Dogs is not the movie Quentin Tarantino shot. Sure, he wrote the script, but do you think the movie changed between handing it off to the script coordinator (who figures out how long a movie will run and what a director will need to do his job) and the cutting room?

My goal is to show as much as I can. I know I have a fictional scifi universe my characters inhabit, and telling certain aspects about it is unavoidable. The script forces me to reveal those in dialog and scene setting. Hanar does not smell like Amargosa and has a different colored sky. Gelt melt really quickly when exposed to a bio-toxin designed for suicide pills. Much of that can be put into stage direction. Like a director designing a scene and picking the shots that will make those up, the script will tell me what description and how much to use. It will also reveal when exposition might be needed. If I’ve done my job properly, I’ll have considerable less when I turn this into prose, and I can focus on making it interesting.

One must not be slavish to show, don’t tell. But it is the rule, not the exception.