No writing rules? ‘Show, don’t tell’


My first novel is written and almost ready. In it I use a number of new and old literary techniques.

There are many rules which inhibit the freedom of storytellers. ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is just one of them.

A little while ago I read a pamphlet from the huge established publisher Hachette. On the cover of the pamphlet were the words: ‘NO RULES – Just write’. It sounded great…

The next pages of the pamphlet contained many established rules which went way beyond the simple rules of sentence structure, grammar and spelling. For example, under the title: ‘Describing your characters’ it reads: ‘It was once the convention to spend a long time describing characters…nowadays we try to show character through action rather than tell the reader about it.’

That’s putting it mildly! Nowadays, ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is almost a commandment! If you ever hope to be published then make sure you obey the rules and norms – after all, that’s how all new writing styles started isn’t it? No, it’s generic and it keeps within the rules. We are not clones.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is one of the rules which almost all modern writers seem to agree on. We have had it pounded into us like getting pummeled with a cushion. If the establishment say that telling a reader that a particular character is ‘mean’ or ‘good’ or ‘unduly pedantic’ is in fact insulting to a reader’s intelligence then who are we to question that?

There is (they say) one way to reveal character traits – and that is to show a character doing (for example) ‘mean’  things. So, introduce a character who eats children and who squashes frogs for fun and the reader will work out that they are mean. Yes, that works, but it also infringes on the freedom of the storyteller (who faces enough pressures already). It isn’t intrusive and it is not a measure of a writer’s respect towards his or her readers to use an old technique.

The Show Don’t Tell commandment is taken to the nth degree by the establishment. All passages are scanned for any slight chance that a storyteller is being too intrusive. The author must step back from the work. There is no leeway.

I’d like to argue that this is infringing on the basic freedom of writers. I don’t want to say that ‘showing’ is wrong – it isn’t. Showing is highly effective. What I want to argue is that ‘telling’ isn’t wrong either and that doing both can free up a writer a little.

So, because I am still a Christian (show don’t tell) I’m going to use the Bible to prove this…

There is one final authority when it comes to everything and anything according to most Christians. That is the Bible. So I would like to ‘show’ from the Bible just how many times the storytellers who wrote the books within used ‘telling’ as a technique.

So, for research, I spent two long hours this morning going through the Bible page by page (the closest I’ve come to a Bible for any length of time for a while :-).

You could argue that the Bible is not fiction (or that it is) or that it is not to be interpreted in a literary way – but the Bible contains stories and we approach it as readers listening to stories. It’s a meta-narrative. The authors of these stories chose to present them in a certain way, whether they are history, parable or allegory. It is considered to be very well written by many people.

So, here are some examples of telling in the Bible…


  • Genesis 6:9-10 (GNB) Noah – “Noah had no faults and was the only good man of his time.”
  • Genesis 25:27 Jacob and Esau – “…and Esau became a skilled hunter, a man who lead the outdoor life, but Jacob was a quiet man who stayed at home. Isaac preferred Esau…”
  • Genesis 38:7 Er – “Er’s conduct was evil…”
  • Judges 11:1 Jepththah – “Jepththah, a brave soldier from Gilead was the son of a prostitute.”
  • Ruth 2:1 Boaz – “Naomi had a relative named Boaz, a rich and influential man…”
  • 1 Samuel 2:12 The sons of Eli – “The sons of Eli were scoundrels. They paid no attention to the LORD…”
  • 1 Samuel 18:1 Jonathan – “…Saul’s son Jonathan was deeply attracted to David and came to love him as much as he loved himself.”
  • 1 Samuel 25:2-3 Nabal and Abigail – “His wife Abigail was beautiful and intelligent, but he was a mean, bad tempered man.”
  • Job 1:1 Job – “There was a man named Job…he was a good man, careful not to do anything evil.”


That was just from a quick scan of the Old Testament. What about the new testament?


  • Matthew 1:19 Joseph – “Joseph was a man who always did what was right…”


And here are some of Christ’s parables. I hear he was considered a storyteller of some talent…


  • Matthew 25:2 Christ’s parable of the 10 virgins – “Five of them were foolish, and the other five were wise.”
  • Luke 16:19 Christ’s parable about The rich man and Lazarus – “There was once a rich man who dressed in the most expensive clothes and lived in great luxury every day.”
  • Luke 18:2 Christ’s parable of the persistent widow – “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.”


And here is Luke talking…


  • Luke 2:40 Christ – “The child grew and became strong: he was full of wisdom, and God’s blessings were upon him.”


And John…


  • John 1:14 God – “The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us.”


And these were just some of the passages which I found from a brief study (I’ve left others out). It’s true that the Bible authors also ‘show’ – but they don’t only show. Many of them tell as well.

Today Christ would be rejected by the establishment as an amateur.

Does that make him a rebel?

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