Tell…Don’t Show


Lately I’ve been finding myself sighing, flipping pages, and thinking about my fantasy hockey team while I read the latest New York Times zillion-copy seller. I’ve turned into a serial-skimmer, looking for the telltale short paragraphs and action buzz words that tell me there’s something worth reading amidst the reams of fluff.

Now, after the fifth or sixth unsatisfying read, I think I’ve figure out what’s striking an off-note to me in these novels. The investigation took a while, because it’s counter to everything I’ve learned as a writer.

These writers are showing, not telling. And I really wish they’d stop.

I’m being facetious when I say “tell, don’t show”, of course. But many of today’s novelists have taken the venerable show-don’t-tell rule and—as science fiction novelist C.J. Cherryh warns not to do—followed it right over a cliff. These writers are “showing” us to death with a flood of unnecessary detail, a left-to-right, up-and-down panning of a scene. Every superfluous detail is cataloged, distracting us from what we should be concentrating on: the story. Some “thrillers” have all the drama of a webcam set to record an empty living room. When I find this in my own writing, I draw an “X” through it without mercy, so it makes me cringe and frustrated to see it in a bestseller.

Good writing works, in part, because the writer has chosen one or two telling details that capture our imagination, or paint a picture, or convey an emotion that would evaporate if you talked about it too much. To describe these details to death is to kill the energy and passion inherent in a scene, a chapter, or a novel. Describing what counts—and only what counts—is what makes writing different from publishing a grocery list or reporting a traffic accident. Music is made up of scales, but you don’t create a symphony by playing all of them at once.

Chris Roerden, editor and author of the Agatha award-winning writers’ guide Don’t Murder Your Mystery, covers this tendency in a chapter titled, fittingly, “Slow Death.” As she says, “Don’t underestimate your readers’ capacity for anticipating the familiar and the routine. Over-explaining is irritating.”

The argument could be made that these books still constitute entertainment. A portion of the reading public wants an easy read crammed with mundane detail in the same way millions watch fictional soap opera lives that mimic the real thing. Novels that transcribe the details of a drama–instead of crafting the path to them–are easy on the brain and exactly what many readers look for in a book.

But I would argue that this isn’t writing, it’s stringing words together. Do you want to scribble on a page or do you want to write novels? Are you videotaping with words or are you creating? They’re both forms of writing, but only one can really be called craft.

So, please, current- and would-be New York Times Bestsellers, let’s leave behind the parenthetical explanations, the asides, the names of pop stars that were hot and their song titles that were hits the week you wrote the first draft. Abandon snarky observations about coffee houses and random musings about the highways near your house or your character’s laundry list. Stick to what matters. Show us the poignant moment or the setting that fits just-so. We’re in your hands; show us your skill and tell it like it is.

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Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Excellence in Writing
2 comments on “Tell…Don’t Show
  1. Anonymous says:

    A complicated issue for sure. We writers get stuck with these rules in writing class and they are not always true. A lot of 19th century writers told us quite a bit–Tolstoy and George Elliot come to mind. They didn’t show us. However, they didn’t tell us everything. You always have an element of mystery. It’s often a question of what to tell and what not to, what to show and what not to.

    Roberto “James” Christiano

  2. Matthew Iden says:

    Thanks for stopping by, James. I agree, the “old masters” have much to teach us about craft.

    I think what puzzles me is that, in this age of 10 second attention spans, most of the reading public wants 450 page catalogs of the kind I mention in the post. You’d think that flash fiction (or at least hard-hitting, tightly-plotted short novels) would be more in demand.

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