Article: Showing vs telling

Showing vs telling

So this is just a very small addendum to this great Ken Liu quote (which should just be framed in workshop rooms to be honest!). On showing vs telling: first off, that Kate Elliott article is definitely worth reading.

Second, a few additional thoughts. Like Ken says, showing works, among other things, because of shared frame of reference. We all assign, for instance, the same value to looking someone in the eye. So for instance, I can say that character A meets everybody’s gaze squarely and (unless I provide further context) the majority takeaway will be “honest, straightforward person”. In the Vietnamese culture I’m familiar with, that same behaviour means “rude person, lacking respect to elders”. But I can’t show that, because you can’t guess. I have to tell you. I have to explain, because otherwise it’s confusing if I merely show character B get very angry at character A when they keep looking people in the eye.

Similarly I could write something like this.

“Have you heard about the latest Metropolital exams results?”

“No, what happened?”

“They’re unusually good this year for the orbital.”


Now if you don’t know what Metropolitan exam is, I’m going to have to unpack this, and why the results are good, and something about what it means to the characters, otherwise you’re just going to be very very confused. It won’t have to be a long thing, necessarily. But it’s still way more words and more telling than a similar reference everyone would immediately get (like a high school getting their percentage of admission to Ivy League places, to take just one example off the top of my head).

And yes, if I were writing for an audience that knew all of this I could cut down on what I’m telling. But just think for a moment, will you, when asked to show not tell: “who’s getting shown things and how can they afford not to be told?”

(there’s other layers to show vs tell & other divergences of use and aspects to consider of course! I’m just unpacking this specific one)


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