The ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ Rule of Writing

The ‘show, don’t tell’ rule of writing is well-known to any and all authors, and to most of the unofficial writers out there, as well. It is fairly simple, and it enhances most stories dramatically. Other writing – such as blog posts and such things – don’t need this rule, as you will see.

In essence, the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule is what it sounds like – show things, don’t tell them. This is best demonstrated with the internal workings of a character – we’re assuming that the writing in question is a story with plot and characters and arcs – and how they are expressed.

Say a character is nervous around people he hasn’t met. He may say so to his friends; ‘I’m shy,’ or ‘I don’t like meeting new people.’ But it’s never properly expressed – large parties don’t make him doubtful or shy, he never considers the ‘meeting new people’ aspect of starting a new job, and the idea of meeting a friend’s friend doesn’t scare him.

He may or may not reveal his nervousness when actually confronted with this situations. If he does, it surprises the reader that he didn’t realize this before (unless he’s forgetful, shortsighted, or some other aspect of his personality leads him to not consider these things), until they recall that offhand statement he made ages ago, and wonder why he never displayed it. It messes with their immersion.

If he doesn’t, then readers will automatically discount what he said about being nervous around new people; either it was a lie, or he didn’t know his own courage, or something else – but, most disastrously for the author, they might guess that the writer didn’t know himself, or maybe that the writer doesn’t know what he’s doing. If they are determined to look for an explanation in the storyline, they might come up with crazier and crazier ideas – when he said that, it was actually an impostor. The gentlest idea a writer can hope their reader comes up with is ‘character development/learning curve.’

In any case, breaking the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule is messy, and writers should seek to avoid it. If done in excess, the readers may come to understand it is a part of the story – or else leave in irritation. If it is just done once, the more die-hard fans may wonder if there is a deeper meaning. Done randomly throughout the story, with no apparent purpose or cause, it is at best irritating and annoying.

Keeping the rule is fairly easy – it’s also what character profile sheets are for, particularly with the lesser characters you don’t know as well, or with minor things like the nervousness example above. In any given situation, you have to wonder how the character will respond.

Subconsciously, the reader will be doing the same – and, if they know the character, should arrive at the same conclusion as you (unless there’s a plot twist coming). If you don’t arrive at the same conclusion, there’s something wrong with the way you’ve written the character previously that would make the reader come to the wrong conclusion.

In my next post, I’ll give a more in-depth example of breaking the rule – and maybe I’ll find one about keeping it – taken from Guild Wars 2.