9/26/15 – Tell, Don’t Show
Show, don’t tell is such an axiom of creative writing programs, and indeed of advice given to writers in general, that it is rarely questioned. The most recent author to visit the university program where I teach, for example, gave this advice to our students—and of course it’s sound, especially for the beginning writer, who is much more likely to err on the wrong side, of summary and exposition, including so few scenes that the writing remains dull. No less a master of fiction than Joseph Conrad said that the novelist’s task was to make the reader see, and who can doubt that that entails writing dramatic scenes most of the time? All the same, I have been pondering this question a good deal lately, and would like to share my reflections on why “show, don’t tell” has become such an unchallenged axiom—indeed an almost sacred Commandment—particularly in the United States, and what interesting alternatives to this strategy there might be.