Show or Tell: How Should Writers Approach Description?

Good day, readers and writers. Sorry it’s been so long since my last post; a lot has been going on at my house. I’ve had work, school, cleaning, making connections, and a little bit of writing here and there. I’m still going to be a bit scarce since I’m getting ready for my trip next week, but today I can at least provide you some wisdom on a writing cliché: show, don’t tell.

Last week I hosted my Master’s program discussion on Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. One of the many aspects of Wilder’s writing we covered was his tendency to “tell” rather than to “show.” Of course, I had to mention the age-old advice for writer to “show, not tell.” As usual, my classmates and I had a lively discussion on regarding the subject but, overall, we agreed that Wilder’s style did not harm his work and that this writing cliché is just that, a cliché which does not always apply.

Image retrieved from Amazon

The logic behind this worn-out advice is rather sound: if you are more descriptive in your writing, you’re likely to paint a clear image for your reader and keep his/her attention. In a perfect world, more description would be better. However, we don’t live in a perfect world and, often, more description leads to too much description.

If we aren’t careful, we can overwhelm our readers with the amount of descriptive language we used and, perhaps, even bore them. I’ll skim through even the most beautiful depiction of a stately mansion if it runs on for more than a few sentences. Sometimes we need immense amounts of description, such as when we’re being introduced to a new landscape in a foreign world while reading speculative fiction. Other times, such as when the writer brings the reader fleetingly into a common house that isn’t important to the story as a whole, less is more.

Telling also has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, telling doesn’t aid the reader’s imagination as well as showing does. Too much telling can also be as boring as too much boring. After all, we want to be able to imagine the setting and characters for ourselves, and just saying “the desert landscape” or “the brown-eyed girl” doesn’t often cut it.

Image retrieved from LDS Beta Reader

Nevertheless, telling can also create a mood which showing cannot. When we “tell” rather than “show,” we can induce the feeling of oral tales such as fairy tales and fables. That’s one of the effects that telling has on Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which enhances the book’s other fable-like elements such as the moral and simplistic characters. Telling is also a good way to skim over unimportant details in a story that are still needed for the story to not seem contrived or illogical. For example, you can tell the reader that a character drove from point A to point B without showing any unnecessary details, such as a traffic jam or debris on the side of the road.

“Show, don’t tell” isn’t even a matter of balancing the two concepts. Some stories require a lot of showing and little telling, others need a lot of telling and little showing, and still others should fall somewhere in between. There is no cookie-cutter solution. Rather, you have to take description on a case-by-case basis, changing your approach depending on what feels right for the story you are trying to write.

What’s your take on “show, don’t tell”? Is it solid advice, entirely wrong, or flawed? Do you show more than tell, vice versa, or somewhere in between? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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