Are you a storyteller or a storyshower?

If you write fiction you’re a storyteller. Other media–movies and comics, for example, show the audience the story. Fiction tells a story.

The oft-repeated advice, “show, don’t tell” is good for filmmakers and artists, but I have become convinced that it’s counterproductive for fiction writers.

And the examples used to back up the advice don’t even make sense. Because when you write “Alice stomped her feet and snorted” instead of “Alice was angry,” you are still telling the reader what happened.

All you’ve done is switched from a more conceptual to a more concrete description. Both have their place, depending on the mood and flow of the narrative.

Fiction, by its nature, is able to deliver conceptual information in ways that no other medium can. This is why films made from novels so often seem lackluster and dull compared to the source material. All a movie can do is show.

And there are some things that have to be told. Or you end up with fiction that feels like a scene by scene transcription of a film script.

A paragraph of well-written exposition (and yes, there is such a thing) can immerse a reader in a story more thoroughly than opening voiceovers or “as you know, Dr. Frankenstein” sections of dialogue in a film.

Now, this doesn’t mean that everything that you tell has to be told in a flat, matter of fact style. Fiction can use figures of speech that other mediums can’t. Instead of “Alice was angry” you can write “Alice’s blood boiled and a red haze filled her vision.”

Try doing that in a film.

So the next time someone complains that your story is “telling, not showing” simply explain that you are a storyteller, and telling stories is what you do.  Don’t let someone talk you out of using the most powerful tool that fiction has.



About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle.
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, New Wave, On Writing, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Are you a storyteller or a storyshower?

  1. paws4puzzles says:

    Reblogged this on Paws4Thought and commented:
    Thoughts on ‘Show not tell’ from Misha Burnett.

  2. The advice of “show vs tell” is often repeated in writing advice books written by writers who write mediocre forgettable books.

  3. Pingback: Sharing a post about the PROBLEM with “Show, don’t tell.” | North of Andover

  4. That’s something I’m slowly trying to loosen up on. Exposition, scene-setting, description, whatever you wish to call it. That and always being locked into a tight POV. I’ve found it’s actually kind of exhausting to always “show” filtered through a tight POV.

    I look through SF & fantasy books on my shelf, and there’s a surprising amount of “tell” in them.

    Perhaps “show” needs to be reserved for action scenes or intense emotional confrontations, that sort of thing? (Apart from basic things like writing “tears flowed down her cheeks” rather than “she was sad.” I practically do that automatically at this point, as I consider it part of “characterization” in my mind.)

  5. My two cents: I’ve read now enough books about this advice to think that show and tell should be in balance. In some parts you have to narrate, but only narration puts a distance between reader and character that some readers can bridge and some can’t. I often stop reading a book if it’s only telling and this happens even with bestsellers.

  6. On a last note, too much showing without a strong plot behind it makes a book feel too weak, as if there is not enough substantial story behind it. I often find book reviewers saying that ‘there wasn’t enough substance’, which I think probably has to do with too much showing without a good story behind all those details. Showing, setting, description and details are good, but they won’t save a weak story with a character no one cares about.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I understand your points, but I’m wondering if what you’re objecting to is not telling, per se, but exposition that doesn’t hold your interest. I don’t see telling as inconsistent with story, it’s a matter of whether or not what is being told is actually relevant to the plot.

  7. The only justification I can come up with for the “show, don’t tell” rule is when writers describe a conversation instead of writing it as dialogue. For example: He said that. . . . She replied that. . . . without the use of quotation marks. The entire exchange is related by the narrator, instead of arising as spontaneous behavior on the part of the characters.

    I’ve seen this kind of thing go on for lengthy paragraphs. The writer hasn’t saved any time, and the word count is equal to what dialogue would have used. The scene is static, not active, because the reader is being told, not shown, what’s going on between the characters.

  8. I’m not against telling or showing, they are both good techniques but part of the art of writing well is to know the best way to use both of them so they are not unbalanced.

  9. I’m reading one now that could do with a bit more showing and less telling, when it concerns the environment of his spaceship. The author will write something like “the bridge has a chair with a seatbelt to hold the pilot in place and targeting glasses for him to wear”. Why not just have a pilot plop in the seat, strap in, and start looking around with the glasses?

    So, there is probably a certain type of writer who could use this advice, even if others might be over-using it.

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