Tell don’t show

I want you to tell me a story. I want to hear your voice like a whisper coming up from the page even though you are thousand miles or a hundred years away. I want you to command my attention like a master storyteller bringing a hall full of rowdy warriors to silence with a tale of the weird and fantastic. I want every word you use to count, because if you wouldn’t stand and say them to an audience, why print them on the page?

Please don’t show me a story. Please don’t waste tens of thousands of words describing the technicolor movie spooling in your head because I’m not going to waste my time reading them. Please don’t open your novel with pages and pages of words describing the setting and the characters in endless, pointless detail because if you can’t create the image in a sentence a paragraph won’t do it any better. Please don’t treat your novel like a screenplay, or a stageplay, or a poem, or a comic script, or a feature article, or a blog post, or a text message, or like a fucking twitter update. Because it’s a novel, and it isn’t any of these things any more than a car is a plane or a boat or a hover craft, and trying to drive it like one is going to lead to disaster.

If you don’t tell me the story first it doesn’t matter how hard your try and show it to me later, because you have already lost my attention. Which is why I’m writing this post, because I’m looking at a pile of new novels for review, and too many of them want to show me spectacular images but have completely forgotten to tell me the story first. So please, for the sake of my meagre reading time, tell don’t show.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

4 thoughts on “Tell don’t show

  1. Rather than “tell don’t show”, do you mean “please be economical in your prose”? I’d hate for anyone to think it’s okay for them to write 100,000 words without providing a single scene.


    1. No. The balance of scene and narrative is a related but separate issue. Prose can be madly purple and baroque and work in terms of telling, H P Lovecraft for instance. I’m talking about the cognitive approach the author brings to the task…are you telling me a story with a full awareness of the voice doing the telling, or are you just using words to describe the images in your head in the hope they will become images in my head. Too many writers seem to be doing the latter.


      1. Ah okay. It’s a terminology thing. I wholeheartedly agree. So many books, especially in the fantasy genre, could be way shorter and still be just as satisfying. Well, they would be for me anyway. Clearly there’s a market for all these words.



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