More on showdon’ttell

Art from a (now closed) bookshop in Prague.

We all know the ever circulating meme:

Show, don’t tell.

It’s no modern notion. According to Koch, in 1927 Lubbock introduced this dictum in his book The Craft of Fiction1.

The greats like Dickens and Tolstoy may have done a lot more showing than is now acceptable, but, nonetheless, they too heeded it. This guest post seems to suggest otherwise, but what C. S. Lakin surely suggests has changed arises from our image-based cinematic influences. Applied to writing, we write in long and short “shots”, slow and fast ones, presented from the most poignant (varying) angles, layering “shots” into “scene” with a meaning and rhythm greater than the sum of its parts.

In a work of art everything is laden with affect, and whenever you put two of anything next to each other, a third thing emerges. In film the juxtaposed elements are most often visual, but in fiction the flexibility is almost infinite.

from Robert Olen Butler’s From where you dream

We’ve all heard it, we all (try to) follow it, and, yet, we seem to have dubious conceptions of ‘show’ and ‘tell’.

Show: be visible, display, manifest, demonstrate to, prove, escort, appear.

Tell: inform, relate, instruct, assure, reveal, inform on, distinguish, give the game away, ascertain, take its toll.

In writing, we can’t literally manifest of course, but when we ‘show’, our words evoke the scene in our reader’s mind. Whereas in telling we inform the reader what is happening, by showing it, we prove it to them. 

She was devastated that he was leaving her.


He looked back over his shoulder — she caught his eye hopefully — but he promptly dropped his gaze to the floor. “Don–.” Her throat swelled closed midword. The door closed behind him as he left.

1. I haven’t read this and, incidentally, Koch doesn’t recommend doing so.