East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai



They say you can’t run a blog about your writing – or, indeed, about someone else’s writing – without a post about the ubiquitous dogma, the One to Rule Them All… Show Don’t Tell.
And who am I to snub traditions?

toolbox-set-for-carShow Don’t Tell is probably the most basic, simple tool in a writer’s toolbox.
I talk about tools and toolbox, and not about rules, because of this story, which many take as an undisputed truth, about rules being unbreakeable.
Now I don’t know how it is out there where you are sitting right now, but here where I am, there is a growing cult of this sho’dontell thing*.
Like most cults, this is based on an oversimplified and partial understanding of its central tenets.
And because this post is being written first and foremost for me, as a pro-memoria and as a way to set my thoughts straight, I am non interested here in finding the cult-leader, or laying the blame on this or that blogger, critic or writing guru.
What I would like to write, here, is the tool’s handbook, the pocket cheat sheet for the Show Don’t Tell utility.

So, first basic idea – it’s just one of the many tools in the box.
The purpose of this tool is keeping the narrative
. vivid
. flowing
. economic

The shorthand “Show Don’t Tell” means

“make you narrative vivid, engage the reader, involve her by providing not a flat exposition of facts, not a string of data, but sight, sound, smell too, and do it by using the words necessary, not one more, not one less. And while you are at it, remember that suggesting is better than clobbering the reader with drab exposition. Make theguys do their part of the work.”

In other words, not

“Jack shot his opponent and killed him dead.”

but rather

“Jack pulled the trigger. As the echo of the bang dissipated, he saw a large damp pool spread over his opponent’s shirt front.”

… which maybe is not great prose – ok, it is not – but gives the reader a little something more.

Unveiling new productNow, the Show Don’t Tell tool was not made to be used on the 100% of your text**.
Indeed, the skill, or the craft, comes in knowing exactly when to use it and when not to use it.
Here’s where the economy bit comes into play.
We should concentrate on the relevant elements of the story, getting the less relevant bits out of theway as fast as possible.

But that’s only part of the deal.
There are times, there are moments in the narrative when a plain, apparently drab “She shot him” is much more effective than a more elaborate passage.
Choosing when, and to what degree apply the tool is a matter of skill, experience and sensibility.
It is personal.
We call it style – as in “that’s my style.”

Showing instead of telling is not just something one does with action – it is also pretty neat when we deal with characters.
We can show some detail of our character’s personal history or personality by not telling the story, but by describing the character’s looks, moves, quirks.
Why bore our readers with a paragraph telling us the guy is a science fiction fan, when we can just pin a Browncoat badge on his jacket’s lapel?
This bit, using visuals to detail psychology or background, is often overlooked by the sho’dontell cultists, because it is counter-intuitive: you show something by showing something else, you replace an expository passage with another expository passage.

And this, I guess, is it.
Mandatory show don’t tell post done.
Now this looks a lot more like a blog about writing.


* Let’s admit it – Sho’dontell sounds like a second rate psaeudo-lovecraftian creature.

** Believe it or not, I once tried to read a self-proclaimed “light novel” written in full, paragraph-by-paragraph Show Don’t Tell mode.
Light it was not.
It was, actually, one of the most mindboggingly boring texts I ever read.
I gave up after  a dozen pages.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

7 thoughts on “Sho’dontell

  1. An eternal discussion about writing and literature…


  2. I’ve to say that I’ve had enough of this kind of fanatism about narrative. There’s an old say about “judge a book by the cover”, the same logic (!) applies if you judge a book for the respect of any set of rules instead of reading it.


  3. So, in other words, “Shot, don’t tell”?


  4. Well, in the minds of that people Jack Vance is rubbish?


  5. I quote every single word of your post, but I will not be a cultis of the toolbox 🙂


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