What does Show and Tell even Mean?

A misused tip in writing

The first thing you hear in a writing class is show don’t tell. Now this works on large and small scales, but most website put this on the smallest and most useless scale possible (action without attention to the larger picture), setting new writers up for confusion.

Gerald knocked on the door hesitantly. Then knocked again.


Gerald raised his hand into a loose fist and knocked. There was nothing. So he knocked soundly on the ebony door so that he could be heard.

This comparison makes very little sense to me, although I see it used a lot. What it shows is that the more you add to the action the better. It shows that you should’t just tell the reader how Gerald knocked. You should tell him or her exactly what he did.

In truth, the extra detail to the action added nothing to this barren example. We don’t even know what Gerald is knocking for. The first version was better because it told the exact same info about the situation with less words. In summation, this is just confusing for someone new to writing.

The best way to describe showing instead of telling is to get what’s important across in the least obtrusive way.

So, let’s look at this again, if you want an applicable use of show don’t tell. In this story, Gerald is a landlord kicking out a part-time drug dealer. The first version “tells.”

Gerald went to the door and knocked frustrated. He hated that tenant. People said he sold weed. One time, Gerald even caught him with a bong. Being a landlord, Gerald had to do something. People might move out otherwise. But he was so nervous. In high school he had been bullied and now he was still a string bean.


Gerald knocked on the door limply. Four complaints. He could smell the pot too. There was no answer so he knocked again louder. He quaked a little.

The second version is better (assuming this isn’t an opening scene) because we don’t need to be told what a stoner the tenant is, nor do we need to know that dealers are bad for other tenants, nor do we need to feel cluttered. The second scene works because it don’t feel like narration. His actions tell what a story could have. Plus, the more you explain someone’s behavior, the more you run the risk of contradicting yourself in the action. Imagine later, Gerald acts confident to the drug dealer in someone’s opinion. The information becomes unnecessary and I would go so far as to say damaging to the scene. You’d be better off showing.

But this is not to say you don’t need narration, because you do.

Why you need telling:

  • To elapse time
  • To convey a simple action
  • To set up a scene
  • To simply be clear

So if you want to get anything out of this platitude show don’t tell, remember this: make your writing natural. There’s really no magic tricks. You learn from the writers before you and then try to convey what you see in your head. And if I’m going to be really honest show don’t tell is stupid. It’s a stand in phrase for important skills a writer needs and doesn’t work as an explanation for new writers. Actually, most advice to new writers is generalized and does more to hinder people’s writing than help.

So if you liked this article, recommend, share, whatever and I’ll trying to go at some more cliches.

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