When it comes to good writing, there’s only one rule that counts: Whatever you do, don’t do it badly.
It’s true but it doesn’t offer much help to the novice writer, and that has a lot to do with the current proliferation of “rules” for writing. People who feel they can distinguish between good and bad writing try to figure out what makes the difference. When they spot something they can put a finger on, they put out a “tip” or a “pointer” – only to have all the desperate would-be writers pounce on it and put it on a pedestal.
Example: It is true that some cases of bad writing are “bad” because they use adverbs badly. This has been turned into a “rule” that one should avoid adverbs like the plague. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with adverbs. Adverbs are useful. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have them. Like everything else, though, they have to be used well. You have to think when you use adverbs… or adjectives… or verbs… or pronouns…
Consider this: “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” is not at all the same without the adverb (setting aside the question of the split infinitive). Some would argue that the writer should have used a more colorful verb than “go” so that “boldly” would not have been necessary. Maybe: “to venture where no one has ventured before?” Or, “to stride where no one has stridden before?” Honestly, I don’t see the improvement.
Then there’s “show, don’t tell.”
There is a literary style of story-telling in which the writer tries to avoid explicitly “telling” the reader what the characters are thinking or feeling – or what is significant in ongoing events – or even what is actually happening. Instead, he or she tries to “show” us these things by providing the clues, the bits of evidence. From these, we are supposed to figure it out. The character’s exact choice of words, his facial expression or body language, is supposed to “show” us what he is thinking or feeling. When well done, it can undeniably be an impressive feat.
This approach is best suited to stories that are small in scope and take place in contexts that are familiar to the reader. That way the writer can focus his energy – and expend his words – on detailing all those clues and bits of evidence.
The approach is not well suited to sweeping sagas, or futuristic or historical epics, or any story that requires large amounts of back-story or “world-building.” When there’s just plain a lot of story to tell, showing everything takes too long.
This is not to say that showing isn’t important. You may not need or want to show everything, but you should show the important stuff. The principle is the same as in writing an essay: If you want your story to be convincing, you must illustrate your points. In fiction, the important things include critical attributes of character, significant features of the setting, crucial events, etc. These things need to be illustrated. If your character is supposed to be a brilliant military strategist, you had better show him strategizing brilliantly. If it’s important to your story that the nobles are oppressing the peasants, there should be some visible acts of oppression. If the temperature dropped dramatically to twenty below overnight, you’d better show the steaming breaths, the blue lips and fingers, the ice in the fountain… Or, if a scene hinges on what a particular character is feeling, you should do everything you can to show us that feeling in all its power and glory. What you don’t need to do is to take every single opportunity that arises to “show” rather than “tell.” It isn’t necessary or practical (or even desirable) to “show” every detail of your story.
In fact, “telling” has two advantages over “showing:” It’s efficient, and it’s clear.
It almost always takes more words to show than to tell. Consider whether it’s worth it. Sometimes it’s better to just get on with the story. And attempts to completely avoid “telling” can cause confusion. Trying to show what your character is feeling through facial expressions, gestures, and body language alone, can fail if your reader doesn’t interpret those clues as you intend. Interpretation can be cultural – or individual. One person may express extreme anger with nothing more than a clenched jaw, another by screaming and throwing things. A description of twitching facial muscles and vibrating limbs might suggest to some readers that the character is frightened rather than angry – or is having a seizure… (It’s entirely possible to “show” things badly.) If you tell us the character is “furious,” your meaning won’t be misconstrued as long as the word is in the reader’s vocabulary. If it isn’t, the problem is solved by a dictionary.
Sometimes the best approach to the “show” versus “tell” dilemma is to do a little of both. Tell for clarity and show a bit for illustration. “He was plainly furious. His lips twitched. His fingers clenched on the handle of his cane.” Or, more simply: “He was shaking with rage.” That last one is a “show” and a “tell” all in one. It may not be literary, but if it serves the required purpose for the story you’re trying to tell, what’s wrong with it?
Opinions? Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your take on this burning issue.