How to Escape the Show, Don’t Tell Trap

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

Nothing is worse than getting the dreaded “show, don’t tell” note back from your editor.

You read it again and again, repeating in your mind: I thought I was showing. This looks like showing to me! So, how do you get out of the show, don’t tell trap? Read on.

Why it's important

The Show, Don’t Tell advice is all about your relationship to the reader. It’s intended to help a writer create a mental picture for readers instead of just explaining what happens in the story. Showing gets the reader involved, making them draw from their own experience to understand and relate to the characters and their story. You get the picture started, and the reader’s imagination takes over to bring your novel to life.

How it's misunderstood

This is important advice, to be sure. The problem is (as with most other writing advice) it’s often taken too far. Showing requires more description—which means more words—and can wear your readers out. We’ve all read those books with the 3-page description of a single room. I guess I should say—we’ve all skimmed those books because we don’t need 3 pages to depict a room. This brings me to my next point.

Sometimes you have to tell

  • Getting your reader up to speed so you can move on. For example: there’s too much backstory to show in flashback or through dialogue. Or the reader doesn’t know something that all the characters do.

  • Easing the boring parts of life that are necessary to make your story feel real, like small talk, changing clothes, and commutes.

  • Transitioning from one scene to the next. A bit of telling means you don’t need a million asterisks in your book.

  • Enhancing the reader’s connection. Yep, sometimes narrative can be magical. There’s a reason why we call it storytelling. As I’ve said before (and I’m sure I’ll say again), context is everything.

How to show: some general advice and warnings