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Robert's Rules of Writing #12: Tell, Don't Show

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Masello's rule #12 is a reminder to the writer that telling can sometimes be the preferred mode of storytelling, as opposed to showing. He acknowledges from the outset that this rule is the opposite of the advice usually given -- show, don't tell. But he points out that we often omit certain scenes in our writing. For example, there's no need to show your heroine going through her morning routine of brushing her teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast, etc., if all you need to do is get her ready to go to work.

Whenever I heard the advice "Show, Don't Tell" I always felt confused as to what that meant. Isn't telling the very nature of writing a story? What does "show" mean here? So I'm going to use Masello's rule as a springboard to explain how I finally came to understand this piece of advice.

For me, the difference between showing and telling is better expressed as the difference between writing a scene and narration (or narrative summary). In a scene, you're trying to create a specific picture in the mind of your reader of the events transpiring. Each sentence you write is another step, another something that is happening. In a way, it's more like writing a play or a movie script. You need to give directions to the actors showing each step of the scene -- walk this way, turn that way, slap a face, pull out a gun. There's much more of a sense of immediacy in this form of writing.

Even a simple description of the room can have this sense of immediacy in it. Don't just say that there was a sofa and a TV set in the room. Rather, say that the sofa's ripped cushions made it forlorn, and that the pictures on the TV flickered and buzzed with static. That's showing.

Telling, on the other hand, is what to do when you just want to narrate. Perhaps you need to summarize a few days in the life of a character before getting to the important stuff. Or perhaps you're making a conscious effort to create some distance for your reader. In general, though, it'll take fewer words to get through, but you'll be sacrificing specificity.

Here's two quick examples of what I mean:


Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Cinderella. She lived in a large house with her evil stepmother and stepsisters. Cinderella's family forced her to spend her days cleaning the house from top to bottom, especially the fireplace, which is how she earned her name.

Cinderella's knees ached as she scrubbed at the bottom of the fireplace with a damp cloth. She coughed from the remnants of the old smoke that got into her lungs. She put down the cloth, closed her eyes, and took a few measured breaths.

"Cinderella! Why have you stopped working?"

Cinderella turned to look out into the parlor. Her two stepsisters sat at the table, stuffing their faces with gourmet cheeses. Her stomach rumbled; she hadn't eaten for hours, and that had been nothing but bread crumbs.

"I'm just resting for a moment," she said.

"Well, don't! We need the fireplace spotless for the reception tonight."

Cinderella looked at her sister's beautiful gowns, and then at her own dress, which felt like rough burlap against her skin.


You get the idea.

So remember -- it's show, don't tell. Unless it's the other way around.


Just don't do this sort of thing.
Speaking as a reader rather than a writer, here: I'm fine with narrative that tells me what happened (as you say, that's what narrative is for). What I hate is being told why it's important (this shows how brave the hero is / how everyone loves the heroine / what a harsh and inhospitable planet we live on), the sort of statement that makes me snarl "I'll be the judge of that!". I think of this as editorialising.

In fact, I wonder if that's a helpful way of summarising this opposition: I want from the author what I want from my newspaper - or rather, since the newspaper reports facts, while the author is inventing a fiction, I want the illusion that I'm being told the facts (what happened, who these people are, what the circumstances were) and left to come to my own conclusions. Give me the report, and keep the editorial out of it.

Which isn't to say there's no place for the editorial somewhere else in the book.

Sorry, that's a bit long, and I'm not sure how clear it is - but you've helped me to understand it, at any rate...

December 2016

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