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Countercurrent - Why 'Show, Don't Tell' is Overrated


The moon in the black sky

The principle of “show, don't tell” has dominated the technique of fiction writing for decades, having acquired an almost sacrosanct position in creative writing manuals, workshops, and university literature courses.


According to this maxim, writers should show the reader what is happening in the story through actions, feelings and dialogue, rather than explicitly “telling” things. The prevalence of this rule, however, deserves closer examination, not only to better understand its origins and applications, but also to free writers from the constraints it might impose on creativity and artistic expression.


Origins and Intent of 'Show, Don't Tell'

The recommendation to “show don't tell” emerged strongly in the early 20th century, a period that saw a strong reaction against the didacticism and explicit moralism of the Victorian era. Writers like Anton Chekhov, who is often quoted with the famous advice to “don't say you see the moon; show me its glow inside a broken glass,” helped solidify this norm as a pillar of good writing. Its usefulness was unquestionable at a time when fiction was moving toward more subtle and psychologically complex forms, depicting internal and external realities with a new depth of realism.

Then, there are also 'scientific' reasons related to the effectiveness of creating imagery in the reader's brain, but that's another story...


Limitations of the Rule

Despite its apparent usefulness, the principle of “show, don't tell” is not without its limitations. First, it is based on the assumption that direct, immersive experience is always preferable in storytelling. However, this assumption ignores the value and effectiveness of direct storytelling in appropriate contexts. For example, in novels with a strong philosophical bent or in narratives that span long periods of time or complex events, direct narrative can serve to clarify thoughts and connections that might otherwise remain obscure or overly diluted.


In addition, an emphasis on demonstration rather than statement can limit how writers explore and communicate internal or abstract themes. Character psychology, subtle social dynamics, and philosophical themes often require more expository treatment to be fully appreciated or understood by the reader.


The 'Tell' as a Storytelling Tool

Direct narration, or the “tell,” can be a powerfully effective tool in the hands of a skilled writer. Writers such as Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and even more contemporary Philip Roth, have masterfully used direct narrative to explore the complexities of the human mind and social interactions. These authors demonstrate how “telling” can enrich a story, providing a depth and perspective that action and dialogue alone may fail to convey.


Creative Freedom and Experimentation

The real danger of the “show, don't tell” rule is that it can become a cage, confining writers to a prescriptive model that discourages experimentation and limits personal expression. Fiction writing is an art, not a science, and as such should be free to explore all available techniques and styles. Encouragement to experiment with a balance between “showing” and “telling” can open new avenues for storytelling and characterization that would otherwise remain unexplored.


Conclusion

While “show, don't tell” remains a useful reminder for many writers to avoid excessive explanation or captioning, it should not be considered dogma. Writers, especially those in training, should feel free to deviate from this rule to discover what works best for their stories and personal style. In the end, a novel's ability to engage and move the reader depends not on strict adherence to a rule, but on the sensitivity and skill with which the writer handles his or her art. The challenge, then, is not to be limited by “how” a story should be told, but rather to focus on “what” the story wants to say and “why” it is important to tell it.

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