The importance of “show, don’t tell” in writing

Drink, Kindle and Notebook

I have a secret to disclose; please don’t shout it from the rooftops.

I still read children’s books.

That might not be surprising (especially if you don’t know me)—I’m still legally a child, but when I say children’s books, I mean the books you’d find a seven year-old reading. Or a ten year-old.

I’m seventeen.

That in itself isn’t so embarrassing—I read Harry Potter when I was sixteen, and that’s children’s fiction. It’s what I’m still reading that I find embarrassing.

Specifically, Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories series. To be fair (to myself), I began the series at twelve—a much more normal age for reading such stuff. But here I am five years later, and the series is still incomplete. I’m getting old, and when I borrow the book from the library, I get my little brother to do it. (He’s fifteen—and also taller than me. But he’s better at handling the strange looks librarians might give.)

Why is it embarrassing, exactly? Because when I read the guy’s prose, I sometimes think, “I could do better than that.” (If I have to spell it out here, I like reading from authors who write better than I do.)

Maybe that’s just hubris. But a problem is a problem, and I like reviewing books, so dropping the book, scoffing, and calling the guy a bad writer isn’t my style. And to be fair to him, the plot was interesting and the characters were developed (mostly), so calling him a “bad” writer would be inaccurate.

What is my problem, then?

Well, it’s about how he reveals information, and specifically, characters’ thoughts. Take a look.

He was so happy to see them, he neighed eagerly and did an animated dance with his front hooves. — An Author’s Odyssey

Do you see my point? His writing is superfluous. In this case, I honestly think that the first clause, “he was so happy to see them”, was unneeded. You could infer that happiness from the action part of the sentence. And as if that wasn’t enough, he added the words eagerly and animated too. That’s belabouring the point a little, don’t you think?

If these sentences were placed sparingly throughout the book, it might have been more bearable. However, they were around a little too much for my liking. Which brings me to my next point.

When writing prose, I think that the writer’s goal should be to describe and explain things in such a way that it avoids writing “shortcuts”. When a writer decides to telegraph the character’s thoughts through narration rather than action and dialogue, it gets annoying fast. It’s like reading a plot summary.

Which isn’t particularly thrilling.

When I read (and write), I like the idea of “show, don’t tell”. It’s much more enjoyable to be given the freedom to imagine the characters, their feelings and their world from subtle descriptions that to be told point blank how they felt and what things were like. That’s like drinking juice concentrate. You feel like you’ve been hit in the head with sugar and then you’re thirsty.

And I think all novelists should write like that. It makes for better writing. Which results in a more enjoyable reading experience.

3 responses to “The importance of “show, don’t tell” in writing”

  1. Nice reflections.Great times ahead-


  2. […] via The importance of “show, don’t tell” in writing — 64th Opinion […]


  3. You are absolutely right! Now I need to go rewrite a few thousand pages of emotive description in three novels. But thanks; it’s a necessary thing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: