Writing About Writing – Show, Don’t Tell

Remember a while ago, when I said I’d be starting a new series of posts subtitled “Everything You Know Is Wrong”, to the end of streamlining some topics that I often visit, in the hopes of increasing my output and giving people a reason to visit this blog more often than once every few months?



Welcome to Writing About Writing, the first in a series of similarly themed blog posts, created to the end of streamlining some topics that I often visit, in the hopes of increasing my output and giving people a reason to visit this blog more often than once every few months! This plan will SURELY succeed.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been doing a lot more creative writing over the past few months, and with that, I’ve also started collaborating with other writers. We proofread, we critique, we revise, we publish, we do it all again within a week. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s got me way more excited about writing than I’ve been in years. And now that excitement is spilling over into this blog, where all of you lovely people out there can read me write about writing ad infinitum! Won’t this be fun?

But first…

Who Am I? Why Should You Care What I Have To Say About Writing?

I’m nobody. I’m some random person in the vast sea of the Internet, writing out my thoughts on a free-to-use weblogging service on a schedule that translates loosely to “whenever the hell I feel like it” whose various musings share few common threads outside of being written by me.

I own several books about writing, and I’ve even read some of them. I get NaNoWriMo’s newsletter sent to me regularly. I dropped out of an English degree partly because reading upwards of 40 books in a single semester proved to be a task beyond my capability and, let’s face it, desire to perform.

In short, you probably shouldn’t care what I have to say about writing.

On the other hand, if you’re reading this, chances are that you and I are personally acquainted, and as such, maybe you’ve read something of mine that you’ve liked. Maybe you want to know the kinds of things that go through my mind when I’m writing, just as you’ve read me write about the kinds of things that go through my mind when I do other things that people seem to like. Or maybe you just like me.

So here’s what you need to know about my pedigree as a writer:

  • I like writing a whole lot.
  • Some folks say I’m pretty good at it.
  • I lack discipline and struggle with deadlines.
  • A given individual is statistically more likely to have read one of my fanfics than one of my blog posts.
  • Nothing would please me more than to have some one comment with a complete refutation of everything I say about writing.

If you want to know more, you can seek out some of the work I’ve done outside of this blog. It’s hard to come by, but it’s out there. I’m not putting any links in this post, but I’m sure many of you can follow the trail of breadcrumbs that leads back to other things I’ve written.

With that out of the way…

Show, Don’t Tell

One phrase that you’ll often hear when you get into storytelling – any form of storytelling – is “show, don’t tell”. Generally, this means that it’s easier to engage with an event taking place than in hearing some one describe the event. This translates differently depending on the medium of the story being told; in film, it means that scenes in which something happens are way more exciting than scenes where a character talks about something that happened. In games, in means letting the player DO something is prefereable to having them watch it being done. In comics, it means that illustrations are preferable to descriptions. You get the idea, I’m sure.

In prose, the notion of “show don’t tell” becomes a little more abstract. After all, when your medium is nothing but text, all you can really do is tell. Unless you feel like dabbling in wordart and concrete poetry in every story you write (and hey, if that’s your hook, shine on you reckless diamond), the concept of “showing” and not “telling” can seem odd and counterintuitive. So how are you supposed to do it?

It’s very tempting, when writing prose, to dump exposition on your reader. After all, you have a clear idea in your head about how things work in your story, and you absolutely want your readers to understand that so that they’ll be able to follow along. And I tell you right now, nothing is more boring to read than an exposition dump. When I was 12, I wrote a story about a fictitious space-faring naval organization, a “fleet” of “star” ships, if you will, and spent about 3 pages of text explaining rank insigniae. To me, it was super important that my readers knew how many stripes a captain had on their uniform cuffs compared to an admiral, even though this story didn’t even HAVE an admiral appearing anywhere in the narrative. Bad enough that I spent all this time describing something that could easily have been gleaned from a few characters’ actions, but it wasn’t plot-critical or even plot-adjacent. It was just some factoid I HAD to get out there because apparently that’s how amazing my totally-not-Star Trek story’s world was.

Showing and not telling is all about delivery. I know a guy who claims he only has three good stories, and anyone who’s hung around him long enough has doubtlessly heard all three. Myself, I’ve heard them all so many times I’ve lost count. Even so, every time he starts to tell one of them, I still get excited, even if I already know how it ends. Why? Because the guy is a FANTASTIC storyteller. He tells some parts slowly, he tells some parts quickly, he leans in, he gesticulates, he brings his audience into the emotions that he felt at the time and the emotions he’s feeling now as he remembers the event. And he always, ALWAYS gets the laugh. Think about that, and think about times where some one’s told you a story, giving you just the facts, keeping a steady pace and rhythm to their speech, and at the end of it, they might be laughing away, but you…you’re just not feeling it. And they offer an apology, usually saying something like “I guess you had to be there”. Do you get what the difference is?

Now, for extra credit: do you notice what I’ve done here? I could have sat here and spoon-fed you information on what “show, don’t tell” is, but instead, I conveyed that information to you through actions woven into the narratives I was telling. In fact, I’m doing it right now.

None of this is to say that exposition doesn’t have its place, even in prose. But, like all literary devices, it has purpose, intention, and specific uses that, if executed well, enrich your story rather than make it feel as if it’s dragging on. In a future Writing About Writing post, I’ll cover Sensory Writing as an example of one of the many applications of expository writing.

Until next time, this is An Unqualified Amateur, and I love Writing About Writing!