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.” 


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.

Jade City, by Fonda Lee

6 thoughts on “16.33: Tell, Don’t Show”

  1. None of you mentioned when to show don’t tell or tell don’t show is a matter of pacing decision or building up tension.

  2. First “Nobody Wants to Read a Book”, now “Tell, Don’t Show” – bold titles this season! I love it.

  3. Hi friends! I’m a newcomer to your show–been listening for a few months now–and I just want to start by saying THANK YOU! You lot put together a great show that serves as both inspiration and a kick to the pants… usually in the same breath.

    I’m loving this First Page Fundamentals series, and this last episode broke down some excellent examples. “Show, don’t tell” was something I learned the hard way–by being trained in screenwriting by a no-nonsense mentor–and it profoundly changed my approach to writing. It is absolutely a fundamental concept all authors should learn.

    However, I’d like to suggest a point of clarification to this week’s episode. I think it’s important to remember that whether a passage is “showing” or “telling” has little to do with whether it’s narration or dialog. “Showing” isn’t so much about the type of sentence as it is about what kind of information is being relayed.

    For example, consider the following two sentences: “This made him angry.” vs. “He slammed his fist on the table.” Both of those are narration, but the former is telling and the latter is showing. By the same token, if a character sits down at the kitchen table and monologues their entire backstory in one fell swoop, they are definitely “telling,” even if the information is conveyed in “real time” through dialog interspersed with hand gestures.

    Dan touched on this briefly when he introduced the terms “demonstrating” vs. “description,” but I think qualifying all “description” as “telling” is a slippery slope that could be confusing, especially to newer authors. Just because something is being described doesn’t mean we are being spoon-fed heavy-handed information.

    I can use this week’s book as an example. (Side note, I started skimming the preview on Amazon and nearly got sucked in–I’m going to have to read this book!) Dan (I think it was) mentioned the ceiling fans specifically. The author “tells” us about the ceiling fans through description, but what she’s really doing in this scene is showing us that this story is set in an Asian-inspired 1980s city where rival gangs vie for jade, etc. Although the POV character of this scene dishes out a little of that information via telling, most of it is shown through the description of the scenery and the way the characters interact with the world around them. A poorly done “telling” version of this opening would start with a paragraph like “It’s 1979 in Kekon, an Asian-inspired city where rival mafia bosses fight for control of jade…” That’s telling, and it’s bad writing.

    We could make the same example of The Haunting of Hill House. Even though that opening was all description, I would not consider it to be “telling.” If the author wanted to “tell,” she could have outright stated that the house has consciousness, and it’s seen some things, and it’s definitely not right in the head. Instead, through description and clever sentences, she shows us all of the above–or at least suggests the idea that we will eventually discover to be true by the end of the book.

    Like I said, I loved this episode and I absolutely agree that being religious about “show, don’t tell” can be a pitfall. But I think it’s important to remember that not all description is telling, and not all dialog/action is showing. It’s all about the underlying goal of the scene and the function of the information being conveyed.

  4. I can’t count how many fellow novice writers tell me, with my work (a paragraph here or there) that I have too much tell and not enough show. But people who read my entire book say they absolutely love it. I’m confused as to know when to just tell and when to show more. You mentioned pacing, which makes sense. The balance is tricky…maybe it comes with a lot more practice (it’s always the answer) or maybe I should have less novice writers give me advice. Haha! When do I know when it’s time to just stop tweaking and turn my work into an editor?

  5. The storytellers, Dongwon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard, told us quite a bit about the old advice, “Show, don’t tell.” Starting with its origins in silent films. But storytelling, novels, nonvisual media, inherently require a certain amount of telling. So the question is more how do you balance it. In the opening pages, you need to tell us enough for context. Or maybe you consider it as describing and demonstrating? Or immediacy versus distance from the character? What kind of rating does this information need? There’s a lot of discussion you can read about now in the transcript in the archives!

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