Show, Don’t Tell, Gosh Darn It!

One of my newest pet peeves as a reader/viewer is lazy storytelling, primarily when writers tell and don’t show. I was reading a book the other day and the writer did this left and right, and you know what? It was really freaking boring.

For those of you who haven’t been to tons of classes about showing not telling, I’ll elucidate. Here’s an example of telling:

Steve was a jerk. Impatient and demanding, he had no time for anyone he didn’t have use for. Even then, he was unpleasant to work with. His colleagues had all long since given up on him demonstrating even a shred of humanity.

I mean, yes, you get a sense for who Steve is, but this doesn’t exactly make for compelling reading.

How here’s an example of showing:

“What the hell is this?” Steve asked. The white paper cup on the counter was filled to the brim with thick white foam, the top of which was dotted with flecks of nutmeg.

The chipper young barista forced a smile while she consulted the scrawl on the side of his cup. “It’s a cappuccino, sir.”

“No,” he said, knuckles whitening as he squeezed the edge of the counter, “It’s not. It’s a cappuccino with crap on top. If I’d wanted crap on top, I would’ve asked for it.” He reached for the cup. When the barista handed it to him, he emptied it onto the floor. As coffee splashed onto her shoes, he scowled and said, “Make it again. The way I ordered it.”

While the barista fought back tears and remade the drink, the next person in line stared straight ahead and pretended he was elsewhere. He reminded himself that even though he shared a cubicle with Steve, he wasn’t responsible for fixing the guy.

This isn’t a perfect example, but I hope it gets the point across. You know exactly as much about Steve in the showing example as you learned in the telling example, but it’s, in my opinion, a lot more fun to read.

I’ve seen a few example of this lazy storytelling in TV shows and in books recently, and it’s annoying me. If Show Don’t Tell is an axiom I know, then surely other writers must have access to it, too? Is it too much to ask for some fun dialogue?

2 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell, Gosh Darn It!

  1. Erika,

    I agree, I prefer to see the character’s traits and backstory illuminated through inference rather than explicitly. However, this is a newer, more modern approach to storytelling; we shouldn’t throw past generations under the bus as being “lazy” just for using this technique. Some people will use this to be lazy, and short-circuit what they would should’ve written. However, when consistent with the author’s overall style, there’s nothing wrong with the expository technique. Just remember Tolkien, Hawthorne, Dickens, Jules Verne have all used this technique without boring their readers. Or maybe readership style has moved on so much, that the modern reader does view their style as lazy, boring and stuffy.

    Good food for though. :)

  2. -Jonathon, Yes, storytelling these days is a lot different than it used to be. I’m referencing modern stories, both TV and novels, in this rant. Readers these days (myself included) have a short attention span and high gratification requirement. We need action, dang it!

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