Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 1, 2012

Show, Don’t Tell – When to Break the Rule

Show, Don’t Tell.

FOLLOW IT: Of course you should show, not tell, but what does that mean? Your mind must be trained like a mirror to reflect reality. You must transmit experience so the reader also experiences it. “I had a nice trip,” tells us only that a journey was involved. An LSD trip or an excursion to a museum or a voyage down the Nile? We don’t know. We need details to let us envision where you’ve been.

Writing is a visual art—and a visceral, sensory art. The world is not abstract; it is full of particulars. Those school assignments of “what I did on my summer vacation” actually had potential. Instead of embracing them, though, I wrote out of fear: I had a good time. It was very interesting and fun. I told the teacher about my summer vacation and gave her nothing at all. What if I’d shown her instead? My mother dyed her hair red, smoked Marlboros, while my sister and I played Parcheesi on the back porch, sitting on the cool cement. My father ate an early dinner of steak and iceberg lettuce each night before he left to tend bar until 5 a.m.

This is what was real for me in my 11th summer. It would have given my teacher a chance to know me better, bringing my life into vivid focus. This is what a writer must do: Lay out all the jewels for us to behold. To only tell about them is to hide the emeralds from view. Alas, then no one will ever know.
—Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg is the author of 11 books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold more than a million and a half copies, Thunder and Lightning, Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir and Wild Mind. She teaches writing workshops and retreats at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, N.M. View her schedule at

BREAK IT: OK, OK. Generally speaking, this rule is sound. Make it concrete. Externalize that which is internal. Use a slap instead of a slow boil. A single four-letter word in dialogue can do the work of a whole paragraph. Yeah.

Except … there are times when what you want to capture on the page is intangible. You can’t see it, weigh it, smack it or lick it. You have to trap a wisp in words. Trying to turn it concrete only causes it to evaporate.
It’s the change of mood in a stadium when the fans know, with bitter certainty, that their team is about to lose. It’s the buoyancy of the new spring fashions. It’s the intuition out of nowhere, for no solid reason, that she’s going to leave me.

So, how to break 
this rule? Realize there can be tension in the invisible. It can’t be found in what’s invisible, per se. But it can be found inside he who’s experiencing that which is vapor.

The trick to telling is to base your passage in emotions. Less obvious emotions are good. Contrasting emotions are better. Conflicting emotions are best. If moving beneath the surface, in subtext, then you’re cooking. Fold into these feelings whatever outward details are at hand in the moment.

You can’t measure change in that which is static—say, the boulder your protagonist sits on to make big decisions. The rock doesn’t change. The drama is inside. Telling doesn’t ignore tension, it just snatches it from the air.
—Donald Maass

Donald Maass 
is a literary agent whose New York agency sells more 
than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the United States and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist, Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and The Fire in Fiction. He also is a past president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Good post. This is an on-going argument in my head. I’ve posted on the problem myself a couple of times. There are no easy answers.


  2. I should have realized that was Donald Maas talking. One for the class wiki!


  3. Natalie’s summer story truly shows me the show don’t tell rule. We can’t expect anyone to care deeply about a series of stage directions.
    Donald’s advice takes it to the next level to feel don’t tell. Great advice that sets the bar high!


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