There’s nothing wrong with “telling” – or with adverbs

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.

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11 Comments

  1. It’s so reassuring to see another writer who is willing to let adverbs and “telling” have their place in a story. Have you noticed that many writers love to cite Stephen King as the poster boy for “No Adverbs” and yet, if you look at his sample chapter at the end of “On Writing,” he keeps an adverb because it clarifies what he’s saying.

    I think too many writers miss that fact. Reading is subjective, certainly. But when a writer creates engaging characters and a story that draws the reader in, the “rules” tend to disappear. In a poorly written book, many readers might point out the overuse of adverbs and telling. But in a good one? I doubt they’ll say it was good because there were no adverbs and the author knew how to “show” the story!

    Reply
  2. I love this post and agree wholeheartedly. My worst offense as an inexperienced rule-following writer was based on the advice of a college English professor who issued the dictum, “Avoid using the verb ‘to be.'” (The professor never explained how he thought that related to Shakespeare) I think his advice actually was related to trying to get his students to use fewer adjectives and adverbs, since a “She was [insert adjective here]” is a common—and lazy—sentence construction. For years, I labored to find verbs to take the place of a simple “is” or “was,” with the effect that my prose often sounded tormented rather than natural. I finally came to the conclusion you have reached: used well, there is nothing wrong with the occasional instance of the verb “to be.” (Note four non-illustrative uses of “to be” in the preceding passage… did that bother anyone?)

    Reply
    • Audrey, that’s a wonderful/horrible example! I’m really sorry that teacher put you through that.

      “To be” is such a workhorse verb I can’t imagine doing without it. I think “is” and “are” and “was” are invisible words, like “said.” You can’t really overuse them as words. Maybe you can over-rely on some construction that uses them, but really I think that teacher should have told you more specifically what the problem was that he was trying to correct or avoid.

      Reply
      • Just shows you how susceptible young adults can be (and even older adults!) to the cult of the guru/teacher… We all thought he was God’s gift to the teaching/writing profession. Ironically, we found out many years later that he had falsified his resume to get the teaching job. A wonderful/horrible example in so many ways!

  3. I agree with you and the other commenters. I think the more we write, the more we learn that these ‘rules’ aren’t absolute, and the more comfortable we get trying them on–and off…

    Reply
  4. I agree with you. There is so much paranoia about show don’t tell that it can hinder the creative process and place the writer into a pre-packaged box. Boring. It’s good to know the “rules” so that you can know when to break them. Literature is full of great “telling” writing.

    Reply
  5. Hi-

    I tried to reblog this post but couldn’t do it. Then I realized that I hadn’t asked you for your permission.

    May I and do you know how I should go about doing it? 🙂

    Reply
  6. Congratulations on a brilliant blog. I’m glad you write favorably of adverbs and ‘telling.’ Not so long ago I did a post on my fondness for adverbs – up to a point. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

    Reply

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