“Show Don’t Tell,” is an overused piece of writing advice. I say it too much, often as a placeholder for deeper work I could be doing with students and clients. There is also “Kill Your Darlings,” but Emily Schultz has that one covered.
Cecilia Tan has pointed out how racist the whole idea of “show don’t tell” is because it prioritizes a very specific kind of narrative (often white, male, and literary) and shuts out communities and genres in which the telling of stories is central and essential.
In spite of the good work of Huber, Tan, and many other writers, “Show Don’t Tell” still lingers in the smoggy world of bad writing advice.
In novels, essays, and poetry, you actually have to both show and tell. In novels, we probably need the most showing, e.g. scene work, but we also need telling. The ratio of showing to telling depends on the narrator, the point of view, and the kind of the story that you want to write.
Essays probably require more tell than show, but I still think they need some scene work — some show — especially for writers who are new to making evidence visible and alive on the page.
Poems don’t necessarily need to show or tell, but they can traffic in imagery which is the seedbed of all writing, even good academic writing.
As someone who taught herself how to write novels pretty late in life, I’ve had to learn how to juggle the ratio of show and tell, and understand that there is no secret formula. But I will say that in my experience, the big four American publishers love scenes, so I thought I’d teach you what I know about how to write them.
In my previous post, I mentioned scene work, but since it’s so hard, I wanted to go deeper.
A scene is or has:
- A moment or two in time that you recreate for the writer, so that they can experience it as if they were there with you. Perhaps you want to write about the moment you got punished…