Cup of Dcaf: Show vs. Tell


I’m sure just about every aspiring writer has heard the infamous dictum: “Show, don’t tell.” This is often a foundational element to how a lot of people write, especially when starting out. While the heart of this advice comes from a good place, exhorting writers to not use the crutch of adverbs or gratuitous description, it can sometimes swing too far in the other direction.

I will admit that when I first started writing, I was definitely one of those people who needed to hear “show, don’t tell.” My prose was terrible, of course, and basically all passive descriptions and setting, moving clunkily (I don’t care if that’s not a word; I’m using it) along and serving more as a technical layout of the world I wanted to create. It took time and a new mentality to show, but in time, I found myself on the complete other end of the spectrum: my writing was basically all dialogue, most of it intended to show the reader things about my characters or the setting indirectly. The result was a flat story, lacking in setting and focused too much on boring conversations that didn’t really move the story forward at all.

It’s a big thing that I concentrate on, now. I think I’ve found the style that fits me best, and it is definitely dialogue heavy—but it also leaves room for the establishment of setting and character. I read a lot of epic fantasy, and the common style in that genre is generally  the opposite, featuring tons and tons of detailed descriptions of dresses and flags and castles. This rises naturally out of the desires of the author: he or she has created an entirely new world, and wants that world to come to life on the page. Some authors manage this better than others, but even those can turn off readers by their extensive descriptions. I’ve lost track of how many people have told me they couldn’t get into Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time because the details were too much.

At that point, it’s all about the opinions of the reader. If somebody doesn’t want to read a book that tells them the shade of that lord’s coat and the embroidery on that lady’s dress, it’s pretty much a lost cause. But going too far the other way will leave readers confused, wanting more from your settings and struggling to piece the narrative together.

While each writer will have his own particular style, the foundation of it should be the knowledge that setting is given at least the necessary amount of attention, no matter what “show, don’t tell” says.

One thought on “Cup of Dcaf: Show vs. Tell

  1. I agree that it’s a balance between how the author manages their details and how the reader experiences those details. Certain readers will never get into certain authors, and I think that’s in huge part due to a mismatch in their writing and reading styles.

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