Show, Don’t Tell: The Great Debate

The dumbest advice I ever got as a science fiction novelist was “Show, Don’t Tell.” 

 My problem was that I thought “They” meant all the time.  Of course it’s good advice particularly when dealing with character issues.  Nothing knocks a reader out of a story quicker than a protaganist you’ve been told six or seven times is braver than brave, who, when confronted with his/her first action, runs screaming from the room.    In that case, the advice is excellent. 

However, “show, don’t tell,” sucks when dealing with world-building.  Okay, before you get up in arms, let me give you an example of what I mean:  planet rotation.  Say you’re setting your novel on a planet that does two day-night cylces during the Earth-standard twenty-four hour period.  Let’s also say you’re dealing with a colony of human beings used to operating on that Earth standard.  Sure, you could confuse the heck out of your reader by “showing” a character going through his/her “day” twice and having people talk about “second sunset.”  But you will confuse them.  The reader’s assumptions are always status quo unless TOLD otherwise.

I used to go through all sorts of weird and, ultimately, useless contortions to adhere to “show, don’t tell.”  Now, unless there’s a really good character or plot reason to dramatize a bit of world-building, I tell it.  I believe this aids clarity and lets the reader focus attention on the important bits, as in character and plot. 

Even so, I’ve had long and heated arguments about whether this is “true” to the experience of reading.  A dear friend and fellow SF/F writer, H. Courrages LeBlanc postulated (and  I am paraphrasing here an argument from about twenty years go, apologies if the details don’t truly represent Harry) that a point of view character wouldn’t take even a micro-second to “explain” something in his/her narrative voice to the reader.  They would simply experience it, and all of this world-building would be invisible to her/him because, well, it’s their world.  They live it.  Also, he pointed out, that if you stop to explain everything, you run the risk of clogging down the reader’s experience with too much information, a.k.a. “infodumping.”

I actually agree, which is why I’m really careful about when and how I choose to tell. My rule of thumb is to tell only as much as the reader needs to know at that moment.  If, when I start to tell, I find myself still telling six or seven paragraphs later, I stop and try to figure out if there’s a better way to dramatize or show the same information.

Again, it may seem deeply obvious, but, for me at least, I needed Eleanor Arnason to look at a me after reading something I’d written and say, “Forget ‘show, don’t tell.’  In science fiction sometimes you need to tell to get on with the story.” 

And believe me, you don’t argue with Eleanor Arnason.

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  1. 1. Sandra

    Excellent points, especially balancing what the POV character would say/think vs not losing your reader.

    I’m still battling the show vs tell bug, but on a more basic level. My tendency is to put a paragraph of ‘tell’ extrapolation to cover the boring but necessary bits to get from point A to point B in a scene or between scenes. My crit reader was less than happy w/ me for that so now I’m going back in to figure out how to make those links w/o gratuitous telling.

    Is it an obvious trick in SF to plop a stranger into the world/universe so that the reader has someone to relate to (and someone who can translate the oddities of this new world for them?)

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    At last! Someone willing to decry the Sacred Rules of writing! Can we take on the adverb and POV police next?

    I once had a critter tell me that I’d never see my third-person omniscient stories in print. The fact is, different techniques work for different kinds of stories, and you should never refuse to look at any of them.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Heh. I’ve been drilling this very rule into my students’ heads.

    I actually think this is a good rule to present as if it’s infallible when somebody’s getting started, because you really need to get it through their heads, and beginning writers are often confused by “do this, except you can also do this, but only when thus-and-such, and really it’s all subjective and we do it by instinct.” Rules are easier to hold onto and learn from. But that’s when I’m teaching the concepts; in actual critique, I tailor what I say to what the story needs, and therefore also to how well the writer is deploying (or not deploying) the rule.

    As for the above-thread comment about adverbs and POV — heh. I already blew up the adverb one in the first week of class, saying you shouldn’t be using them as crutches, but I have no patience with those who would drum them out of our parts of speech entirely. And the iron-hard POV rule I told them was, “don’t lose your reader.” If you can float indiscriminately from head to head in such a fashion as to bring your reader along without a hitch, and that’s what your story needs, then go for it!

  4. 4. James Alan Gardner

    With beginners, I think it’s useful to go over a few passages of interesting prose and actually look at what’s there. How much is showing, how much telling? How many adverbs are there? How does the POV manifest itself and what are the pros/cons?

    New writers should get into the habit of really really really looking at how prose goes together…and of course, they should look at the work of many different writers to see the range of possibilities.

  5. 5. cyn

    well said. one can’t show the whole story just like one can’t do it all in dialogue. (okay, some bestseller will prove me wrong, but generally speaking…)

    and i do still like my “ly” words once in a while.
    and sometimes i’ll even fall slightly out of
    3rd close pov.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    one can’t show the whole story just like one can’t do it all in dialogue.

    I’m using Terry Bissom’s “They’re Made of Meat” as a teaching story for dialogue next week. <g> All dialogue, all the time — it doesn’t even have attribution for the speakers.

  7. 7. Soni

    OMG, I love the meat story. One of the best examples of all-dialog writing. I think, though, rather than being particularly unusual, it’s actually a version of the epistolary form of writing. What do you think?

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Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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