The Dangers of All Show and No Tell

If you hang around writing blogs long enough, you’ll inevitably come across the advice of “show, don’t tell.” The degree to which this advice is emphasized can vary, everything from “don’t tell me the moon is full, show me the moonlight glittering on broken glass” advice to punch up descriptions, to “real writers don’t tell you a story, they show you the story” (AKA telling is bad, mkay?).

I just had a brush with a story that is all show and no tell, and I am here to tell you that that mode of storytelling, as a general rule, does not work.

This was a film I screened for the local festival. I can’t talk specifics about it, but it was a broken narrative (a la Memento) and trying to be a stripped-down story of the type the literati claim to love. The film was beautiful, but ultimately boring, because without any “tell” to give me a bit of backstory or information on the characters, I simply didn’t care. I didn’t care about their mortal danger, I didn’t know why they were doing what they were doing and didn’t care enough about them to try and flesh them out vis a vis my own imagination…I simply didn’t care. By the point in the film when they did finally show some of the backstory, I felt it was too little, too late–had I come across the film on TV, I’d have given it the 20-minute chance for being beautiful to look at and then changed the channel long before we got to the exposition, because I had nothing to hang onto, character or emotion-wise.  So I would never even have reached the point of understanding that might have enabled me to care about what was happening.

That is ultimately the problem with all show: the lack of tell leaves the reader without the tools they need to engage with the story. You simply cannot show every relevant piece of backstory to explain why a certain event is going to matter to a character. (Actually, I take that back: The Lies of Locke Lamora does that brilliantly, but I would not want every story to be told that way.) You can’t show us enough facets of a character quickly enough to make us care enough to keep reading and get the story going quickly enough to keep us reading. You can have one or the other–invest us in the character at the expense of a headlong rush into the story, or rush us into the story and tell us a bit about the character.

I’m not saying you have to overwhelm the showing of the story with the telling of the character…but if you present no telling and no frame of reference, the ADD reader will be hard-pressed to give enough of a damn to keep going. This is why I struggle with Cormac McCarthy despite recognizing his genius as a writer–I have to reach the end of the book before I have been shown enough to care about the chracters and everything that just happened to them. I have to force myself through to reach the end; the reading is not pleasurable, even if the contemplation of the reading afterward is.

If that’s the style you are aiming for, fine–but I think the advice is suspect for most writers, because most writers want to entertain their audience, and most readers want to be entertained. Readers don’t mind some tell, especially if the telling allows us to connect sooner with the characters or the story.  For me, stories that are all show just don’t hold my attention, and so however brilliant they may be by the end…I’m not going to keep reading to find that out for myself.

And if the goal of a writer is to be read, that means they failed.



Filed under Rants and Storms, Writing

5 responses to “The Dangers of All Show and No Tell

  1. I can’t tell you how many godawful ‘showing’ scenes I’ve plowed through on a certain author-site. Usually it was just a few pages, because I couldn’t force myself to go more than a chapter.

    “Showing” goes way too far into TMI territory. A few sentences and a bit of dialog can make the plot go so much faster than pages and pages of detailed ‘Showing’ that serves no other purpose than to ‘show not tell.’

    Pacing is so important in genre fiction – especially in romance when the reader can get bored and start skimming for the ‘good stuff’ which is very bad.

    I’m not going to say I didn’t make that mistake – my first novel has a very slow start because I was ‘showing’ the reader every aspect of the MC’s complicated life. But I didn’t make the same mistake the second time around – I wanted a strong pace and wasn’t afraid to skip the details to get it. The difference in the two books really shows the progress I made as a writer. (er, pardon that.)

    I think authors can get lost in the craftswomenship of writing and forget that readers are buying STORIES. So we are, first and foremost STORYTELLERS – not ‘StoryShowers.’

    Ask any kid.

    They want someone to ‘tell me a story, please.’

    • I love that reminder about how kids phrase it. Wisdome from the motuh of babes, indeed.

      Yeah, the internet and the rise of writing blogs has been both a wonderful thing ndd a terrible thing for writers.
      On the one hand, those who never had the benefit of a good teacher can pick up some great tips…on the other hand, suspect advice or tips that really should apply to narrow parts of writing are being applied wholecloth by people who don’t know better.

      My take on writing is that you do what works for you and the story you’re trying to tell. I have been through a course that taught me how to scour my prose of long sentences, long words, and all the “no-no’s” like adverbs, passive voice, to be in any manifestation, and so on. The tone also sounds nothing like my natural fiction voice. Non-fiction, sure, it works for that. But not stories. Stories are for readers.

      Plus stories told from a deep POV (first or third) are allowed to have MORE adverbs and qualifiers and convoution (as long as it’s clear) because those things occur in the natural cadence of a person’s thoughts. People don’t think it tight, compact verbiage. That’s the result of editing, or over-editing as they case may be, and in my opinion unnecessary in fiction.

  2. Over editing! Oh yes, I’ve seen a lot of that – and again – my first novel suffered for my ignorance. It’s still selling – so it can’t be that bad. LOL But the writer’s VOICE is so important to the story. We have to resist the temptation to edit ourselves out of our own books.

    • “We have to resist the temptation to edit ourselves out of our own books.”

      SO WELL SAID!!! I think that temptation is stronger in a writing class/critique group where you have 20 different opinions on your style, and each of them have different ticks that they don’t lik. What’s that old saying, about you can’t please everybody all of the time so aim for pleasing someone some of the time? That’s my view of a writer’s voice. Make sure you’re not confusing anyone or intefering with a reader’s ability to read by your mistakes, but don’t write to please anyone but yourself, stylistically. None of us are such special snowflakes that we won’t have an audience who appreciates that style…

  3. Yes, over-editing is why I stopped reading at my Face-to-face writers group. They all had something to complain about – the fact that I write romance was the first point of contention. Got tired of the snickers and the condecending remarks.

    I swear, 10 years later I’m the only one who’s finished one book! I’ve published 2 as e-books and paperbacks. When they ask me what I’m working on – and mention something I read – I always reply with the number of copies it’s sold. It completely blows their minds.

    I don’t understand how anyone can comb over a novel for 10 years! One poor guy has been writing and researching the same novel for 30 years or more! I think he said he had more than a million words to it. The pace is Glacial.

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