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“Show Don’t Tell” is Bad Advice

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

When I was an MFA student, I couldn’t write a single line of exposition without my classmates circling it on their copies. “Show don’t tell,” they’d scrawl in the margins before handing me their feedback. For years, I tried to write without any exposition. Any backstory had to be told in complete flashbacks. The point of view characters was not allowed to speculate, reminisce, plan, or have a life philosophy. But I found the result was small, insignificant stories.

Exposition–done correctly–adds depth by tieing the events of the story to larger themes and setting the cultural backdrop of the world. Let’s have a look at the famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

In short order, we’ll be introduced to the main characters and get a sense of their personalities, but we start here with a broad statement about the world of the story. We learn here how important marriage and wealth are in this society. The fact that it is “universally acknowledged” from the third-person narrator shows how much conformity exists in this society.

One could argue that this line should be shown in a scene, or that the scene that follows adequately demonstrates the line. Yet this is one of the most famous opening sentences in English literature. The “telling” nature is what makes it memorable.

After reading a lot of classic novels, I came to believe that the problem with exposition is that a lot of beginner writers don’t know how to use it correctly. They might spend pages on a scene where the main character gets up and eats breakfast with loads of vivid sensory detail. Then a pivotal scene where the character makes a life-changing decision might happen in one rushed paragraph. This is a pacing issue, not a problem with exposition in general.

I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Beginner writers often use exposition incorrectly. They might spend three pages describing a character getting up and eating breakfast in vivid sensory detail, then the pivotal moment when the character has a life-changing argument is told in one rushed paragraph. This is a pacing issue, not a slight against exposition. It happens because it is relatively easy to write detailed scenes about the mechanics of what we do every day. It’s much harder to write a scene that demonstrates why someone has made a life-altering decision or what caused a sudden epiphany. The former is what actually belongs in exposition, while the later is the meat of the story—the stuff that really needs to be shown, not told.

In order to improve our writing, we must practice what’s most difficult—those pivotal scenes where a character changes forever, but we must also learn how to write good exposition, which is just as hard as good scenes. Good exposition can be witty and interesting. It demonstrates the voice and world view of the point of view character. Most of all, it can show us why this story actually matters.

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