Flash Fiction: for writers, readers, editors, publishers, & fans


Saturday Flash Interview: Tell, Don’t Show in (Short) Short Fiction

Ask the internet about the writing of flash fiction, using Google of course, and you'll rarely not get, as one essential, "Show, Don't Tell." For example:

from "Line Editing in 10 Steps" by Emma Cummingham at Writinghood

Show, don't tell. Instead of Clara telling Bill about her drinking problem, have him find out for himself. Maybe he walks in on her, drunk, three nights in a row. Maybe it's only once, but Clara still feels ashamed and humiliated. This way, Clara has a compelling reason to give up alcohol -- and the reader gets a far more interesting story.

from "Show vs. Tell vs. Nothing" by Robert Swartwood at Everyday Fiction

But the idea is the less you show and tell, the more the reader will feel inclined to step in and fill in the blanks.

from "How to Write a 500 Word Flash Fiction Story" by Hapworth at eHow

Show, don't tell. Edit for unnecessary words. Your words are VERY important so skip the VERY! Write in active voice. Most of all, have fun! And...pick a great title for a great flash fiction story.

from "How To Write Flash Fiction" by Robin Shreeves at howtodothings.com

Flash fiction is powerful because it follows one of writing's biggest rules--"show, don't tell"--very strictly. Limit the adjectives, adverbs and descriptive phrases as much as possible.

"What Is The Definition of Flash Fiction" from WikiAnswers.com

Show, don't tell. Don't tell me how cold-blooded and heartless the assassin is; show me him killing a woman carrying groceries because she was in the way and I'll get the idea.


Along with this essential is "every word must count." For example:

"What Is Flash Fiction?" by Steve Smith and Kathy Kachelries at 365tomorrows

Flash fiction is fiction with its teeth bared and its claws extended, lithe and muscular with no extra fat. It pounces in the first paragraph, and if those claws aren't embedded in the reader by the start of the second, the story began a paragraph too soon. There is no margin for error. Every word must be essential, and if it isn't essential, it must be eliminated.

Some thoughts.

  • If everyone is going around showing and not telling, this idea about writing flash fiction must have some flaws.

  • If every word counts, isn't it sometimes better to tell with "midnight" rather than show with "the little hand and the big hand are both on the twelve"? To tell with "angry" rather than show with "red-faced and trembling"?

  • There must be a reason why people say "tell a story," not "show a story." Telling must have a place in the story-showing process.

  • People confuse telling with over-explaining.


A final thought is about the desire to rid (short) short fiction of adverbs & adjectives. Not only is this desire part of the rule "every word is essential" (so you must use strong nouns and verbs), but it also results from some sense that adverbs & adjectives are too "telling." This removal of modifiers is part of what makes (short) short fiction esoteric. Spend a day communicating with people using only strong nouns and strong verbs, and my guess is you'll begin to sound very mysterious. Of course, story world is nothing like the real world, and maybe very short fiction is indeed a place for only nouns & verbs (strong ones of course). In their place, the writer is allowed to use similes or metaphors, a device that turns nouns and verbs into adjectives & adverbs, as in "he was as tall as a 6' 3" tree" or "the boat sailed across the lake as a bowling ball wouldn't." (Both found on numerous sites on the internet, allegedly from actual student writing).


So, by interviewing the internet, I've learned that the rule "show, don't tell" doesn't quite work as an all-encompassing rule. There must be some times when we should "tell, don't show." Yes?



I’ll tell it like it is, that’ll show you.

Some things you show, some things you tell, know­ing when to do what is the art of it.

From Randall Brown

But is there any time, Ste­fanie, when “the moon is shin­ing” is bet­ter than “the glint of light on the bro­ken glass”? That’s what I’m try­ing to fig­ure out.

From Randall Brown

You keep tellin’ it like it is, GC!

From Randall Brown

Yes, Ali­cia. Know­ing what to do and what not to do with rules is where the art occurs. Any ideas?

From Orgrease

I often think of this tell-show in metaphor of a car­bon-arc lamp in that words are the car­bon points and the desire of the read­er to read is the dri­ving ener­gy. As writer you can hope your points are arranged such that the read­er eas­i­ly jumps across them and there is amaz­ing­ly bril­liant hot burn­ing light. You can adjust the gap to vary­ing dis­tances and dif­fer­ent inten­si­ties of under­stand­ing are pro­duced. You can also set up such a ran­dom pat­tern of words that very few read­ers are enlight­ened but sim­ply blind­ed by the light.

From Randall Brown

I love that final though here, Orgrease, that dan­ger of not enlight­en­ing but blind­ing. And also Read­er is a hard per­son to fig­ure out.

What can I tell you?
The only real prob­lem with telling as opposed to show­ing is that it can make you lazy. I rec­ol­lect a writer describ­ing a class he taught where he tried and failed to get a stu­dent to elab­o­rate the remark “He was obvi­ous­ly drunk.” The trou­ble with the sen­tence is that peo­ple are often obvi­ous­ly drunk when they are not. I thought a pan­han­dler in his teens I met once was drunk from the way he was shak­ing, until he told me he’d had a nail dri­ven into his skull by his moth­er some years back and ever since had been sub­ject to per­pet­u­al shakes. 
In sim­plis­tic polit­i­cal writ­ing peo­ple will always lead with ‘tells’: a polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor fix­es a quot­ed remark for read­ers by refer­ring to the quo­tee as ‘left­ist’, ‘right­ist’, what­ev­er, which always annoys me: I feel my judg­ment is being sub­orned.

Like with the pas­sive voice, all things are good in mod­er­a­tion. I agree you with Randall–a writer needs to tell. What ‘show­ing’ should real­ly mean is that there are times when sen­so­ry details and oblique descrip­tions can do a bet­ter, fuller job. 

In flash, the crux is ener­gy. And for ener­gy, you need progress. All show­ing and the read­er can drown in lit­er­ary devices, bare­ly find­ing the ener­gy to stum­ble to the end.

From Randall Brown

Well said, Mar­tin, and as you explain, there is a rea­son why “show, don’t tell” has become the ubiq­ui­tous writ­ing rule for writ­ers of (short) short fic­tion. I think part of what gets shown and what gets told has to do with the POV and the “psy­chic dis­tance.” For exam­ple, in Joyce’s “Ara­by,” here’s how Joyce shows us that the narrator’s uncle is drunk: “At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talk­ing to him­self and heard the hall­stand rock­ing when it had received the weight of his over­coat. I could inter­pret these signs. When he was mid­way through his din­ner I asked him to give me the mon­ey to go to the bazaar. He had for­got­ten.” It would feel strange for the boy, the nar­ra­tor, to explain these signs; it would cre­ate an aware­ness of read­er and destroy that sense Joyce wants of us being the boy’s con­scious­ness.

From Randall Brown

That kind of rule makes sense to me, Ben: “Don’t tell when it would be bet­ter to show.” I’d love to see a list of exam­ples when telling is bet­ter than show­ing. Maybe I’ll start look­ing for exam­ples in my future read­ing. By the way, I like a lot what you are doing with Twit­ter fic­tion at Nano­ism.

Thank you, Randall–much appre­ci­at­ed. Need­less to say, I might be con­sid­ered some­thing of an SLQ fan­boy.

Your post got me think­ing about broad pre­scrip­tions for writ­ing and how inevitably, as with all uni­ver­sals, they nev­er seem to ring true. Per­haps what “show don’t tell” (and “use the active voice” “no adverbs” etc) is most use­ful for is focus­ing a naive writer’s first impuls­es to tell his/her sto­ry. After all, writ­ing on the page isn’t the same as telling your friend over cof­fee. As writ­ers used to learn from copy­ing oth­er writ­ers, it’s good to under­stand that you *can* show things in the first place. As with grammar–only when you know the rules can you break them. But break them you must (because who doesn’t want to start a new sen­tence with a con­junc­tion).

I’m intrigued. I’m going to keep an eye out for some bril­liant­ly told pas­sages. I can think of sev­er­al sce­nar­ios (espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing voice, per­spec­tive, and pac­ing) but few exam­ples off the top of my head.

From Randall Brown

Thanks, Ben, for the nice words about SLQ. Dave Clap­per does a great job with it. I think con­scious­ly break­ing the rules (as a rebel­lion) works bet­ter than doing it inno­cent­ly.

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