Show, don't tell

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This article is about the composition principle. For the Rush song, see Show Don't Tell (song).

Show, don't tell is a technique often employed in various kinds of texts to enable the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. The goal is not to drown the reader in heavy-handed adjectives, but rather to allow readers to interpret significant details in the text. The technique applies equally to nonfiction and all forms of fiction, literature including Haiku[1] and Imagism poetry in particular, speech, movie making, and playwriting.[2][3][4][5]

The concept is often attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, reputed to have said "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." In fact, the quote is probably apocryphal, but derived from a letter to his brother in which he wrote "In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball." [6]


Ernest Hemingway[edit]

Nobel Prize–winning novelist Ernest Hemingway was a notable proponent of the "show, don't tell" style. His Iceberg Theory, also known as the "theory of omission", developed from his background as a newspaper reporter. The term itself originates from his bullfighting treatise, Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Creative literature (as opposed to technical writing or objective journalism) in general hinges on the artful use of a wide range of devices (such as inference, metaphor, understatement, the unreliable narrator, and ambiguity) that reward the careful reader's appreciation of subtext and extrapolation of what the author chooses to leave unsaid, untold, and/or unshown. The "dignity" Hemingway speaks of proposes a form of respect for the reader, who should be trusted to develop a feeling for the meaning behind the action, without having the point painfully laid out for them.

Chuck Palahniuk[edit]

In a 2013 article, Chuck Palahniuk (author of the novel Fight Club) goes as far as recommending a ban of what he calls "thought verbs" ("Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires […]") favoring instead the use of "specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling."[7]

James Scott Bell[edit]

"Show, don't tell" should not be applied to all incidents in a story. According to James Scott Bell, "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted."[8] Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time more concisely.[9] A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling.

Orson Scott Card[edit]

Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. According to Orson Scott Card and others, "showing" is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes.[10] The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, summarization versus action. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.[11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ British Haiku Society- occasional paper 'English Haiku: a Composite View'2002
  2. ^ Wells (1999). How To Write Non-Fiction Books. Writers' Bookshop. p. 65. ISBN 1902713028. 
  3. ^ Warren (2011). Show Don't Tell: A Guide to Purpose Driven Speech. Jerianne Warren. ISBN 0615498353. 
  4. ^ Mackendrick, Cronin, Scorsese (2005). On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director. Faber \& Faber. p. xxiii. ISBN 0571211259. 
  5. ^ Hatcher (2000). The Art and Craft of Playwriting. F+W Media. p. 43. ISBN 1884910467. 
  6. ^ Yarmolinsky, Avrahm (1954). The Unknown Chekhov: Stories and Other Writings Hitherto Untranslated by Anton Chekhov. Noonday Press, New York. p. 14. 
  7. ^ Palahniuk, Chuck. "Nuts and Bolts: "Thought" Verbs". LitReactor. Retrieved 9 December 2013. 
  8. ^ Bell, James Scott (2003). "Exception to the Rule". Writer's Yearbook 2003. F+W Publications: 20. 
  9. ^ Selgin, Peter (2007). By Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers. Writer's Digest Books. p. 31. ISBN 1-58297-491-8. 
  10. ^ Card, Orson Scott. Character and Viewpoint. Writer's Digest Books. pp. 140–42. 
  11. ^ Browne, Renne (2004). Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (2nd ed.). Harper Resource. pp. 12–14. ISBN 0-06-054569-0. 
  12. ^ Kress, Nancy (March 2006). "Better Left Unsaid". Writer's Digest. p. 20. 

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