Obstacles to Good Writing #1: Telling, Not Showing, and What's Really Going On With That


You have probably heard the maxim ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ when it comes to writing fiction. I’m reading a book at the moment (which shall remain nameless) that tends to violate that piece of advice. I’m about a third of the way in, and by far the largest part of the narrative so far has been describing events almost like a historical chronicle, with very little dialogue or character interaction. It gets away with it to some extent because the ideas are intriguing, and also because the author has split the voice of the piece into two narrators, whose viewpoints the reader gets to see via alternating chapters. This structural device gives the impression that some kind of interaction is occurring, as the characters send long distance messages to each other, and it avoids what would become prolonged ‘telling’ were we to stick with one voice for more than one chapter.

But it got me thinking about how better to describe the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ principle. That led into examining some other story basics which might be of interest.

Firstly, ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is a colloquial way of guiding authors to encourage readers into a shared space. When an author simply describes what is going on, the reader stays more or less on the outside of the narrative, looking in. This is probably why some people hate ‘description’ in fiction, especially in older stories when pages and pages of minute elucidation of scenes tended to make story pace slower. Beckoning the reader into the fictional space is done through sensory variety and engagement with character.