Among the best pieces of advice ever given to writers of fiction is “show don’t tell.” It’s one I try my best to keep an eye on both as a writer and as an editor. Basically it works like this:

Galen broke the tripwire in the doorway, causing the fireball to explode. The fireball burned him and knocked him back into the corridor. He screamed.

Is not as fun to read as:

Galen felt something tug at his boot as he stepped through the door, but before he could glance down to see what it was the room filled with blazing orange fire that seared his face and sent him staggering back into the corridor, screaming.

Okay, a pretty simplistic example.

But there’s another layer to that rule that I’m finding more and more, and it’s as though a few authors who didn’t know any better and who were badly served by lazy editors managed to get key instances into their books so that now both authors and readers are starting to think it’s not only okay, but preferable to write this way, and I’m starting to really worry about the future of storytelling.

What am I talking about? That kind of stilted he did this then that happened then something else happened of the first example? No, fortunately most authors and editors tend to heed that basic advice. I mean telling rather than showing on a more macro level.

This is huge red flag for me:

The messenger staggered into the general’s camp and shouted, “The castle has been sacked! The princess has been kidnapped! Three major supporting characters have been killed!”

Wait, what? What happened? When did this go down? And why weren’t we (the readers) there to see it?

There are a very few very specific instances in which it’s better that we join the hero in hearing of all this “off-screen” action, experiencing the shock along with him, but please believe me when I tell you those instances are vanishingly few, and require an exceedingly careful hand to pull off. In virtually every other instance what you’re doing is cheating your readers out of the visceral experience of the most dramatic moments of your story.

Especially in fantasy and science fiction, readers want and deserve some degree of action. I’m not advising that your book be a non-stop series of fight scenes, but neither should it be a non-stop series of conversations about fight scenes. In fact, I’d think twice before including any conversations about fight scenes.

Writing action well is hard. I might even go so far as to say it’s harder than writing dialog, but then good, natural dialog is hard too. Hey, nobody ever said this was going to be easy. But if you find yourself thinking, Well, no one really needs to see all the details of the castle being sacked, I just need to get the hero off on the trail of the princess’s captors, for God’s sake, stop and think.

Yes, we do need to see that. Anyway, we want to see that.

Just because you know that the princess will be kidnapped not killed, that the deaths of the other supporting characters will eventually be avenged or worse, turn out not to matter or have some greater significance that later appears out of nowhere, that doesn’t mean your readers know all that stuff. They’ll go into the siege of the castle really worried about the safety of the princess, really wanting the supporting characters to successfully protect her, or at least escape to join in her rescue. When they fall valiantly in battle your readers will be cheering and cringing and enjoying themselves, maybe for hours (many pages), as opposed to being shocked for a few seconds (a couple sentences).

Think of it this way:

What of the movie Star Wars had cut immediately from the briefing to the award ceremony, maybe with a quick conversation between Luke and Han:

Luke: Gee, Han, lucky you got there when you did to send Darth Vader spinning off into space while I blew up the Death Star.

Han: I know, that was crazy, wasn’t it, Kid? Pretty dangerous stuff, but good going with using the force to find that little ventilation shaft. That was pretty impressive.


And if you think I cooked that up like that first example with Galen and the tripwire to prove a point with an over-the-top example, okay, maybe just a little, but I have honestly read not just iffy slush pile submissions that do essentially just that, but published novels by authors who should have known better from editors who should have known better too. I could give you examples, but that would be breaking my rule about getting snarky over another author’s work.

Look for it in the next book you read, think about some of the best-known and longest-lasting SF or fantasy novels, and try to identify an instance in which someone like Howard, Tolkien, or Moorcock did that. If you find it in your own writing, just go back and write that scene. Blow up the castle. Kidnap the princess. Kill her entourage. Don’t be scared. That’s what you’re here to do.

—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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4 Responses to SHOW ME A STORY

  1. Woodrow Nichols says:

    Dear Mr. Athans:

    I read your comment in “A Princess of Mars” book review and thought you might enjoy a six part graphic screenplay thesis on the life and works of ERB as occurring in a parallel universe, thus giving me license to deal with those areas of his private life still shrouded in mystery. It is posted at:

    Thank you,

    Woodrow Nichols

  2. Pingback: Showing vs. Telling - Page 4

  3. Well it’s only two years late, but your post was referenced on a forum where we’re having a “show, don’t tell” discussion so I figured I’d post here anyway.

    I don’t think your examples are wrong, and I also think that over-telling is a serious problem for new writers, and even for more experienced writers. And I certainly don’t think I’m immune to it, because I’m not — I have to catch myself doing it and fix it as much as the next guy. That said, the problem with “show, don’t tell” is it implies that you should NEVER tell, and telling is a tool that a writer needs to learn effectively, just like showing.

    Telling is for imparting communication quickly without overshadowing the part you want the reader engrossed in.

    Telling is for creating distance between the reader and the event — and there are times you want that distance, especially when you’re writing humor. (This is my go-to example, but read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Most of his jokes are telling, not showing).

    The writer needs to decide when a scene calls for intimacy, and when it calls for distance. If a character is overcome with grief, and the story is *not* a comedy, showing works better than telling because it’s more visceral. But if your character is shell-shocked and numb from the experience? Telling is better in order to relate the emotional distance. And if the point isn’t an emotion — if the emotion is just set-up to whatever the point is — then telling can be a better a tool, depending on how long it would take to show.

    Just my opinion, and not one that is universally accepted, but I thought I’d chime in. Two years after the fact. Hopefully you don’t flag me as spam.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Not only did I not flag you as spam, but I agree with you. Above all, rules are made to be broken, and most of my favorite authors are favorites because they know exactly how and when to veer off from the accepted and expected. The trick, though, is knowing not only when, but HOW to do that–and to use it sparingly lest it lose its impact (whatever that broken rule might be) and simply come off as a mistake, or series of mistakes, in the CRAFT of writing.

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