Show . . . and Tell

I have re-blogged this piece because it deals with a difficult subject of interest to writers and readers.


The great Russian author Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”



In a single sentence, Chekhov illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of good writing, something so ingrained in writers as to be self-evident; a core principle so universally accepted, acknowledged as truth, it is generally regarded as beyond debate . . .

“Show.  Don’t tell.”



I can’t even count how many times I’ve encountered that piece of writer’s advice in my lifetime.  In nearly every essay or book or column on creative writing, “show, don’t tell” is right at the top of the list.  And rightfully so.  To be able to transport a reader, an author must be able to paint word-pictures that are crisp, clear, vivid–images that resonate and stick in the mind long after the page is turned.



Consider the following…

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2 thoughts on “Show . . . and Tell

  1. Very true. I’ve always been given the show don’t tell advice, followed by the adjustment, ‘of course you need to balance passages of both show and tell’. Non-stop “show” writing leaves you breathless and perhaps less satisfied? I guess most new writers err on the “tell” side which is why the saying came about. I have just been working through my current novel trying to expand the showing element. This is tricky as I have several people telling their stories and most ordinary people do not talk like writers.


  2. It seems so obvious, but I don’t trust it at all. I can think of too many examples to the contrary. In the piece I re-blogged Mike makes a statement about film: you can only ‘tell’ using a narrative voice-over. In film, you have to show everything. This is clearly wrong. There are so many occasions when one character tells a story to another. For example, in the much acclaimed series Breaking Bad there are many examples of telling, some of them quite long. I also noticed in the guidance notes you sent me how poor some of the showing quotes were. Sometimes the telling version was better.

    So I am uneasy that you are going through your book trying to expand the showing element.
    You may be doing the right thing, of course – plainly I don’t know. I hope you are.


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