Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.33: Tell, Don’t Show

Your Hosts: DongWon Song, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler

Few pieces of writing advice get repeated as much as that old saw “show, don’t tell.” We’re here to show tell you that it’s not only not universally applicable, much of the time it’s wrong¹. Tell, don’t show, especially in the early pages of the book when so very, very much information needs to be delivered² quickly.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson

¹ Fun fact: this advice comes to us from silent film, when it made great artistic sense to put things on screen rather than on title cards.
² If you need new terminology, Dan uses “demonstration vs. description.” 

Homework: Rewrite your whole first scene as narration. See what parts work better and what doesn’t work. Keep the better bits, and work them into the next draft.

Thing of the week: Jade City, by Fonda Lee.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Show, don’t tell originated in silent films, where the choice was between showing you a visual image or letting you read a title card. However, storytelling inherently has a certain amount of telling. It’s a balance between telling and showing. Especially in the opening pages of a book, the writer needs to tell the reader a lot of information for context. Consider it as describing and demonstrating. Or consider it as controlling pacing and emotional distance. You can interweave telling and showing. Show us the good parts, and tell us the other parts. Some of this is the order of information being presented. 

[Season 16, Episode 33]

[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, Tell, Don’t Show.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re going to tell you stuff.

[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m not going to show you that I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] Well, fine then. As we start off this…

[Dan] Thank goodness.

[Mary Robinette] I want to actually talk about where the advice tell… Or show, don’t tell comes from. This actually comes from silent films.


[Mary Robinette] So, this is important to understand…

[Dan] A slightly outmoded art form.

[Mary Robinette] As a writer. What this advice originated from is what the reader wants to see is characters doing stuff and action happening. What they don’t want is to have to read a bunch of title cards. So, if you can give us information embedded in the scene, that is significantly better than having a title card or having a whole bunch of things at the beginning that your character has… Your reader has to wade through before they get to the meat of the thing. So that’s where show, don’t tell comes from. But in fact, we are storytellers, so… A certain amount of telling is kind of baked into our process.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Dongwon] Yeah, the thing I always think about is that a novel is mostly the writer just telling you stuff. Because there’s too much thing… Stuff, there’s too many things that happen in a novel or you to show every single component of it. Right? So I think show, don’t tell is really useful advice, but for a 101 level writer. For an introductory writer. When you’re just getting started, you need to learn how to make sure that things are seen on the page that reinforce the stuff that you’re telling us. But the reality is, it’s a balance. There’s a lot of telling and a lot of showing. I think when you’re in the opening pages of a book, there’s so much information that I as a reader need to understand anything. This kind of goes back to our start it with dialogue thing, that if you tell me some stuff first, then I have the context to engage with the dialogue that you’re putting up on the page. So I think there are ways in which you can tell us a lot of information. Think about Hill House. That whole first paragraph is just Shirley Jackson telling us about this house. I think that informs everything that’s going to come after that.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This is… This has been true for all of the things that we’re doing. But frequently what they’re doing is that everything is doing double duty. It is both just flat out telling you. I was arrested. That’s just flat out telling you. I was arrested. He then proceeds to show the arrest. Yes. But he’s not playing coy with the information. It’s like this is the important thing, this is the thing that I want you to understand. A lot of times, I think that we internalize this show don’t tell so thoroughly that a writer feels like if they just come out and tell the reader something, that they have in some way diminished the surprise, the anticipation of whatever it is.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Using my own novel as an example, the opening of Calculating Stars is, “Do you remember where you were when the meteor hit?” I’m like flat out telling you a meteor is going to hit. A meteorite is going to hit. Before we get into the rest of what’s going on. So it’s totally okay to just tell people things. He said, she said. That’s just telling people stuff.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Howard] The best example I’ve found for… In support of show don’t tell in novel form was a draft I read in which a conversation, a big, detailed conversation between two characters, we are told the summary of the conversation. It is bookended by very specific dialogue, meaningless dialogue, from the pilot about bringing the spaceship into dock. I remember reading that and thinking, “You showed me the completely uninteresting bits, and you told me what happened in the part that I wanted to see.” So that felt upside down. But yeah, for the most part, we are tellers, and we tell a lot.

[Dan] I like to use different words for these. Telling and showing, because we are primarily a nonvisual medium, don’t have as much meaning as they would in, for example, silent film. So, I like to talk about instead describing and demonstrating. Like Dongwon said, there’s a big balance between them. That you need to do both of them. Some things need to be described, and some things need to be demonstrated on the page so that we can see them in action and understand why we should care about them. But using… How to use those two tools is really valuable.

[Mary Robinette] I also use different words when I’m talking about it. Because for me, the decision about showing or telling is about controlling two specific things, the pacing and my emotional distance from the character. So the more I unpack something and take time with it and dwell on it, the kind of closer I am to the character’s head. That doesn’t mean that my sentences have to get long. Like in the Tom Reacher, that’s… We are very deeply in the character’s head, but everything’s short and punchy. So for me, it’s about immediacy versus distance from the character, or unpacking or compressing something. If time passes, frequently, I’m just going to tell you, a lot of time passed. I’m not going to make you, like, live through that.

[Dongwon] I think also one block that people have is they think right here, this paragraph, I’m telling somebody something. This next scene, I’m showing. Then I’m going to tell, then I’m going to show. I think that is… I think the Dan thing really helps disrupt that, because what you’re really doing is sliding from showing and telling sentence to sentence, even, like, clause to clause in a sentence. When you have dialogue, Howard kind of hinted at this a little bit, but you can have one person say something and then tell us, “And they said that their day was great.” You know what I mean? Or tell, “And then she told me about her day and her morning, and some interesting stuff happened, but mostly it was boring.” Right? Like, you can skip over the boring parts of it, but then show us the interactions that matter. Right? So, think of these as tools to be used in a very interwoven, very integrated way. Not one block of that and then one big block of that.

[Howard] It’s also useful to think about this kind of the way the MPAA handles content ratings. If you show the splash of blood and gibbets and gore, you’ve got an R rating. If you show the moment leading up to that, and then the camera pulls away and someone talks about what happened, you have a different rating and the viewer has a different experience. So you, as the writer, by controlling the position of the camera can do some things with content that might otherwise be extremely triggery, extremely graphic, whatever, and handle it in a different way, because it’s your book. You show us what you want to show us, and tell us the parts that you don’t want us to stare at.

[Mary Robinette] So, with that, may we tell you about our book of the week?

[Dan] That is my opportunity this week to talk about Jade City by Fonda Lee. This is the first in a series, a fantasy series, that I didn’t quite know what to expect going into it. It is kind of an epic fantasy about two crime families, basically, in an Asian inspired fantasy world. But in… It’s a modern version of that. It is… It’s set in like a modern-day style city. The very first paragraph has ceiling fans that took me completely by surprise because I was expecting something more traditional fantasy. The language in the book is incredible. The characters are enormously compelling. The setting is really well drawn and fascinating. It’s absolutely wonderful. There’s a whole series attached to it, so please go read Jade City by Fonda Lee.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to second that, because I blurbed it. I think I described it as the Godfather meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


[Mary Robinette] Because it’s all of those things, plus all of the stuff that you love from martial arts wireworks as a magic system. It’s so good.

[Dongwon] Fonda herself talks about that book as the Godfather with kung fu, right? That’s absolutely the premise. I will also point out that Jade Legacy, book 3 in the series, is out this November and I cannot wait.

[Dan] Well, let me use this as an example of what we’re talking about with tell, don’t show. Because it is entirely about kind of two warring crime families. There’s No Peak and there’s Mountain, and they’re fighting for control over the city. In order to understand that battle, we need to understand how the city functions and how the magic works and all of that. So it begins with what I suppose is technically a prologue, but feels just like chapter 1 of two thieves who are trying to steal a bunch of Jade from a kind of low level criminal. Because they are outside of the system, we’re not getting all of the high level ramifications of what’s going on. We’re getting the very low level jade is important, this is why, this is what it can do, this is why we want it. So it’s just really kind of telling us… It’s describing to us what is important and why. Then it is demonstrating to us what the magic can do and what it is like to live in the city, all at the same time. It’s a brilliant opening.

[Dongwon] Yeah. I mean, she tells us that Jade is important, that the clans are important, how the jade magic works, and how the culture in the city works. She’s telling us all those things. Then, immediately reinforces it by showing us the moment of these two petty criminals walking to this restaurant to try and rip off this like mid-level boss, and just everything is a disaster, as you can expect, in a totally delightful, like, very Breaking Bad style way of, like, all these dominoes falling. But it’s such an opportunity to set up the thing by telling you, reinforce it by showing you, and then telling you the next thing, when you see the consequences of the first thing happening, right? This is a try fail cycle used to demonstrate worldbuilding. It’s a master class in my opinion. The other thing I wanted… I’m sorry, go on.

[Mary Robinette] I was going to say, we should probably talk about other things besides the book, even though I will… I was… Because I was just about to say, “And also…”


[Howard] Oh, and then in this part…

[Dongwon] We could go on forever about this book. The other thing I want to talk about though, is… I think it’s so interesting that Mary Robinette pointed out that the origins of show, don’t tell are rooted in silent film. Because I think the way in which… The amount of visual media that we all consume today I think has made show, don’t tell really run off the rails in terms of writing fiction, which is a nonvisual medium. Right, as Dan said. The problem with show and tell is we think of it as here’s a scene of two characters talking and then here’s a voiceover, and that’s the telling. We think of telling as the artificial voiceover. In film, that’s often a cheap trick. In film, that is a shortcut to giving us information for a variety of reasons. So what we instead need to remember is that when we are looking at a visual image, we are absorbing enormous amounts of information that aren’t on the page. We can see the characters’ faces, we can see their expressions, we can see what they’re wearing, we can see the furniture behind them. Right? You don’t need to describe that ceiling fan. If I just saw the opening shot of a movie version of Jade City, I would know, yeah, this is the 1970s. Yeah, there’s technology. Yeah, there’s cars. Right? I don’t need to be told those things. So the thing to remember is that when you’re writing a book, the reader will only see what you put a laser focus on. The mechanic by which you often put that laser focus on the stage setting is through telling us stuff.

[Mary Robinette] The example that I use when I am attempting to explain this, to tell people about this, is that a lot of what we’re talking about here is the order of information. That the order of information that you’re presenting to people on that first page is incredibly important because you’re setting up context. So what I use is the example of imagine that you’re in a dark theater. That’s laser focus, and that you have a single spotlight. The single spotlight rests… Opens up on a pool of red liquid on a linoleum floor. You think, “Oh. Someone’s been stabbed. There’s blood on the floor.” Then it pans over and you see a can of Kool-Aid. You’re like, “Oh. Okay. No no no no. I was wrong. I misunderstood what was going on. This is a kitchen drama and someone’s just dropped a can of Kool-Aid and that’s what the red liquid is.” You pan a little bit farther. Now you see a hand and a bloody knife. You’re like, “Oh. No, I was right the first time. Someone was stabbed.” But, if you do it the other way around, if you provide context for your reader, if you start with the hand on the floor with the knife, and then you go to the can of Kool-Aid, and then you go to the red liquid, the reader can build this very clear picture in their head. So when you’re deciding at the beginning kind of what to tell, you’re not just deciding what to tell, but you’re also deciding when to tell it. You’re trying to make sure that you’re presenting this information in a way that the reader is building that… The picture that you want them to build in their head. Because storytelling is linear, whereas film, even though we are experiencing time passing, you don’t have control. You have some control over where an audience looks on a screen, but, like, if I am watching something and there is a typewriter in a scene, that is always the first thing I will look at. The filmmaker has absolutely no control over that. But on a page, you do have that control. Howard, it looked like you had a thing?

[Howard] I did. A short paragraph of character description from a work in progress, which… I talked about metaphor and simile and whatnot in an earlier episode. How Lee Childs didn’t use it in the Jack Reacher thing. Metaphors and comparisons are a form of telling, a form of description, that give us a shortcut. This is short.

Darren laughs. It’s a big, friendly, old man sort of belly laugh. Not quite ho ho ho, but if Darren ever decided to grow a beard to go with his massive handlebar mustache, he’d have steady holiday work as a shopping mall Santa.

How much of that is actual description, how much of that is comparison to a picture you already have in your head and I’m telling you to make a connection between these two things, that is something that absolutely… The… A movie can’t do that with one of the characters saying, “Your laugh sounds like Santa Claus. Have you looked at…” Which would derail the film.

[Dan] Well, to keep this… My own little terminology going. That paragraph you read us is telling us how to think about this person. It’s describing the person. But at the same time, it is demonstrating the characterization of the speaker. We’re learning so much about the person who is giving us that information because of the way they choose to give it.

[Mary Robinette] So, with that in mind, I think, let’s talk about your homework for this week.

[Dongwon] So, your homework for this week is, again, maybe taking that scene or taking another opening scene, and what I want you to do is to rewrite the whole first scene purely as narration. Right? Take out any dialogue, take out any of that scene setting, and just give it to us as a narrator describing what’s happening. Now, I’m not recommending this be the final version of your opening. I think this is a really instructive exercise though to show you what does and doesn’t work about this approach. Hopefully, from this you can take sentences, you can take paragraphs, and then work that into your draft. But I want you to really step back and force yourself to get rid of all the tools of showing and only do a telling version of it. See where that gets you.

[Mary Robinette] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.