A popular piece of advice in modern writing is to show, don’t tell. What this roughly means is to paint a picture with your words to immerse the reader in your world rather than string together boring declarative sentences.
And this is true, to a degree. You don’t want your novel reading like “See Spot Run”. But like virtually every other rule of modern writing, it’s been taken too far by many folks.
On Twitter this morning, I saw a writer/editor suggest that instead of “The shadows made him uneasy” (which is admittedly not a great sentence, but hey it’s always easy to set the bar low when constructing strawmen), one should instead say “The hard, dark shadows jutted out at sharp angles, concealing far too much of the path”. This Twitter user declared that the revised sentence is better not only because it painted a better picture, but still conveyed the character’s unease.
What part of that told me the character is uneasy? Perhaps he’s an assassin, and the shadows are friendly to him? I won’t know unless you tell me that he’s uneasy. Also, I know shadows are dark and that angles are sharp. These are redundant descriptions that I don’t need. As well “show” me that the orange orange rolled off the elevated kitchen counter.
And therein lies the danger of showing: purple prose. The unnecessary gilding of sentences when a simpler sentence would do. Writers and editors who try too hard to avoid telling will end up being guilty of this far worse transgression and leave readers rolling their eyes as they’re beat over the head with flowery language.
I don’t know why the literary world these days tends to carry rules of thumb to the extreme. Adverbs, passive voice, and telling are all actual components of writing and should be used, in moderation of course but I feel like that goes without saying. Every writing tool should be used with care taken to avoid overuse, including showing.
To flip an oft-used quote on its head, don’t show me the glint of moonlight on broken glass if there’s nothing important about the glass. Just tell me the damn moon is out and get on with it.
What do you think about showing vs telling? Let me know in the comments!