Monday, April 20, 2015

How to Break the Rules: Show Don’t Tell

If you’ve been a writer on the internet for any amount of time, you’ve probably come across some rules of writing. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut’s8 Basics of Creative Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules or this collection of rules from modern writers at The Guardian. Or maybe you posted a piece of writing online and someone responded with “You can’t do that.”

And if you’ve been on the internet for a little bit longer, you’ve probably realized that there are plenty of published exceptions to these rules. As the great pirate captain Barbossa might have said, the rules of writing are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.

As are the rules of oral hygiene, apparently.
One of my favorite topics to talk about at conferences (the idea for which I readily admit I stole from Cameron McClure (with permission)) is How to Break the Rules. And so I decided to do a mini-series on the blog about just that, starting with that most famous of rules:

Rule #1: Show Don’t Tell

Ah, the big one. This bit has been around for at least 100 years, when Mark Twain told writers to let the old lady scream. The point of the advice is that to immerse a reader in writing, they need to feel inside the scene rather than be given a factual list of what’s going on.

Often when discussing the failing points of this particular bit of advice, folks take it to its extreme, saying, “He lifted one foot and placed it in front of the other and then repeated the process with the other foot” rather than “He walked.” This is absolutely a good point; get too caught up in the details of each action and suddenly your showing sounds very much like telling.

On the whole, though, the advice is good, especially for larger, important things. There’s a rule of thumb that you should never state the emotion at the heart of a scene. (If the scene is centered on your main character’s anger, don’t say they are angry or doing anything angrily.) But telling instead of showing can be just as emotionally resonant, if you do it right. Consider the opening paragraph of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.

I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.

This is all entirely telling, as is the entire first chapter. The main character, August, even introduces himself. These are normally things I would consider a red flag in my queries, yet it works. Why?

Here’s what I think: We hear from August that he’s the only one who realizes how ordinary he is, and that everyone else has a different idea of who he is. So the author is having August define himself. He is completely in charge.

Could we see the information played out in actual scenes instead of having August tell us directly? Sure. But it would have had a completely different kind of impact and, I think, run counter to what the author was trying to achieve.

Also notice how much we aren’t told. We aren’t told how this makes August feel. No “sad” or “angry” or “frustrated.” We just get the circumstances, but it’s enough. We don’t need August telling us his exact emotions to know what he feels.

At the end of the day, rules are just suggestions, like anything in writing. They are there to try to guide writers away from missteps. But if broken knowingly and with purpose, they can make a story all the better.

What do you think about “show don’t tell”? What books do you know of that break the rule well?


  1. There is a difference between a movie and/or theater play and a novel. In a movie or a theater play the creator show the story. It's visual and external. In a fiction the author tells a story which is not directly visual and it's also internal. A movie or a theater play don't allow to show internal thoughts. A novel does. The rule of Show Don't Tell imposes the art form of movies/play on novels. Novels are first and most about telling a story and if the author is constrained to show it like a movie, then what is the point of writing it as a novel. There is a tendency by Publishing professional to focus on each sentence or passage and say.... it's a mistake of telling not showing. I doubt that readers focus on each sentence or passage. They just read and read hoping to get connected with a great telling of a story, plot, conflict, emotions, characters ect. Let's take TWILIGHT for example. Millions of readers enjoy reading the 3 books. They didn't stop in each page asking themselves if it's showing or telling, or if the writing could have been better ... they just moved from page to page enjoying the story. That's my take and thanks very, Amy, much for doing mini-series about writing in this blog. Looking forward fro the next one.

  2. I tried to follow this rule so assiduously in my first novel, but I found sometimes you need time to pass, and that involves telling. You give a sentence or a paragraph explaining "she went to class and she got better at these magics, although she still wasn't perfect, and this teacher got more and more strange, while her best friend continued to ignore her." Now that I know how to do that kind of time-passage telling, I see it EVERYWHERE. Every book has this somewhere.