One piece of writerly advice I have a minor objection to is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s not that this is bad advice, exactly. But it can be dangerous advice if taken too literally.

Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You and Matrimony wrote a guest post for Writer’s Digest in 2012 called “Why ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” Henkin argues that this advice can lead to what he calls “adjective-happy” writing. As a reader for a literary magazine, I see this all the time in submissions. Many of the stories and poems are cluttered with adjectives and adverbs, as if the author’s thesaurus was heavily consulted throughout the writing process. Henkin says this in his guest post:

If you ask me, the real reason people choose to show rather than tell is that it’s so much easier to write “the big brown torn vinyl couch” than it is to describe internal emotional states without resorting to canned and sentimental language. You will never be told you’re cheesy if you describe a couch, but you might very well be told you’re cheesy if you try to describe loneliness. The phrase “Show, don’t tell,” then, provides cover for writers who don’t want to do what’s hardest (but most crucial) in fiction.

Henkin then gives two examples of sentences to describe a character struggling with nervousness:

She was nervous. (telling)

She bit her fingernail. (showing)

While neither sentence is fantastic, Henkin argues that the first, “She was nervous” is better because the biting of fingernails is trite at this point, it’s been overused to describe nervousness and “it seems lazy on the writer’s partinsufficiently imagined.”

This article made me think about some of the more memorable passages I’ve read in fiction. Earlier this summer I read Alice Munro’s short story “Dulse” found in the collection The Moons of Jupiter, and I often find myself thinking about this blatant “telling” passage:

She had noticed something about herself, on this trip to the Maritimes. It was that people were no longer so interested in getting to know her. It wasn’t that she had created such a stir, before, but something had been there that she could rely on. She was forty-five, and had been divorced for nine years. (Munro 36)

There is a lot of telling in this paragraph: we learn the narrator’s age and that she’s divorced. I especially like the sentence “It wasn’t that she had created such a stir, before, but something had been there that she could rely on.” I think this sentence works because of something Henkin mentioned in his post, that fiction, unlike movies or other forms of dramatic art, can provide psychological backstory and can give the reader both internal thoughts and motivations. And this paragraph about the narrator in “Dulse” does just that; it gives the reader a small slice of the character, while speaking to a deeper, more universal truth about women. Even women who haven’t relied on their looks to move about in society are aware of their looks. This woman didn’t think she was some great beauty before but “something had been there she could rely on.” Her looks had done something to help her navigate in the world and now that something had changed, although the change wasn’t necessarily physical and noticeable. The narrator is telling us something big about herself, about the way she perceives herself and how she thinks she is perceived by others. But the big truth is what lies underneath what she says. You can’t take these statements at face value. To fully understand this character, you have to dig deeper, which brings to mind Hemingway’s iceberg theory.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

—Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon [4]

If you are being deliberate in your word choices and if you are creating rich and complex characters in your work, then you are going to have sentences and passages that are more telling than showing.  Like Henkin says in his post, “And where would Proust be if he couldn’t tell? Or Woolf, or Fitzgerald? Or William Trevor or Alice Munro or George Saunders or Lorrie Moore?”


Want more? Click here for Joshua Henkin’s post: