Hint #17: Mystify, Don’t Reveal

It’s that time again.

Welcome back to Hints, a miniseries of Mr. Horne’s Book of Secrets.

No amount of good writing advice can make you a good writer. It’s not the kind of thing that can be formally taught, either. The great writers you seek to emulate got where they are through personal experimentation, grit, and the ability to play by ear.

Still, you’ll get nowhere if no one even shows you how to get started.

What you could really use…is a hint.

“Hints: because you only need a little help.”

The Worst Best Advice

In writing, as in many disciplines, there is a large body of bad advice masquerading as common practice. The most egregious example is, perhaps, the old adage: “Write what you know.” Which is poppycock. JRR Tolkien didn’t know what it was like to wear an evil magic ring. Siegel and Shusterman didn’t know what it was like to be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. And Ian Fleming didn’t know what it was like to knock knees with every woman in the world except Moneypenny.

But this Hint isn’t about the fallacy of “Write what you know”. It deals with an adage even more insidious, because it cuts closer to the truth.

I am, of course, talking about that vaunted but misapplied piece of advice: “Show, don’t tell.”

The Obvious Issue

Any intelligent writing student will immediately see the contradiction in the statement “Show, don’t tell.” And in case you are not an intelligent writing student, allow me to come out and say the obvious.

Writing never shows. Writing is telling. If you want “show”, then you need some kind of video presentation, or at least a picture. And even the most polished and developed writing is only words.

Thus, the advice “Show, don’t tell” is a lie.

But then, why do so many writing professionals—authors, editors, publishers, agents—all espouse this phrase like it was the golden rule of writing? Do they all think you’re just…stupid?

Well, I suppose they have a point. You do look like a bit of a rube. And it’s not unheard of for professionals to intentionally give bad advice to up-and-comers as a way of eliminating the competition (I wish I was joking, but this is a real phenomenon).

But I’m not going to tell you that “Show, don’t tell” is bad advice. Because even while it is clearly a lie, it is also kind of…the literal truth.

Allow me to explain.

The Gospel, According to a Drunk Guy

Sometimes, a true idea can be expressed using the wrong words. Like an intoxicated man witnessing a murder, and later, on the stand, he can say with certainty that the giant hot dog shot the sentient pool toy. He saw it clear as day. With his own eyes, even.

But it doesn’t tell anyone who the murderer is.

And “Show, don’t tell” suffers from a similar disorder. In order for profound advice to become popular, it needs to be short and quippy, even if it’s trying to describe an idea that is nuanced, layered, and worthy of a multi-volume examination. Thus the trite phrase “Show, don’t tell” gets repeated ad infinitum, whether or not it is the best way to describe a topic crucial to writing.

And that topic is more rightly describes as “Knowing when to bite your tongue.”

Tell vs. Not Tell

In this respect, the conflict of “Show vs. Tell” becomes “Telling vs. Not Telling”. Because the kind of writing that most editors erroneously call “showing” is simply writing that goes out of its way to conceal information from the reader, except the concealment is done in a revealing way.

In fact, there’s a word for this phenomenon that is dear to my heart, as I’m sure you can tell. Because that word is “hint”.

You could say that a skillful writer drops hints instead of giving information outright to the reader. In this way, the writer does not tell the reader what is happening. And since you are not telling, you are—according to industry professionals—showing. By default.

As an example, consider the following passages.

Dr. Carpenter walked through the door to find an elephant—a living, breathing, African elephant taking up almost the entirety of the living room. He had no idea how it had gotten there. It couldn’t have come through any of the human-sized doors—the only entrances to the space. Nor could the hundred-year-old house have been built around it. Had the elephant been brought in as a baby, and raised here, in this very room, for its entire life?

Regardless of how it happened, the entire situation was certainly mysterious.

Now, passages such as the above are no stranger to commercial fiction. And I guarantee you can pick up a random volume of prose from the bookstore shelf and show me a passage that similarly spells out a situation in plain language for the reader. Even published and celebrated works do not always adhere to the advice of “Show, don’t tell”.

But consider the following alternative:

Dr. Carpenter opened the door, but stopped.

Frozen in the doorway, he took a second glance at the room he had almost entered—the room he now realized he could not enter. Not without getting crushed.

The rasp of monstrous breathing sounded along the walls which caged the room’s prisoner. It was the sound of lungs larger than a human being as they squeezed air through a narrow nose. A bellows crafted by nature eons before man had harnessed fire. The stink of feces assaulted the doctor’s nostrils, and he noticed how the creature’s excretions pooled around its feet. How long had it been here?

“Well, Dr. Carpenter,” said the detective with smarm. “Have you solved the mystery?”

“Solved it?” choked Dr. Carpenter. He took a step away from the open door, nauseated from the smell and the sight of such impossible cruelty. “I don’t even believe it’s really happening.”

“Can’t you tell us anything?”

Dr. Carpenter glanced again into the living room—the parts of it not blocked by rough, grey flesh. He shook his head.

“Do you at least know whether it’s African or Indian?”

“African,” the doctor replied. “The size alone makes that clear enough.”

And nowhere, in this second example, are you told that there is an elephant in the room. But even if you can’t deduce it from the hints strewn throughout the text, you have to admit that the second example makes the situation seem so much more interesting than it appeared in the first example.

All because I did not tell you what the characters are looking at.

It isn’t “Show vs. tell”. It’s “Conceal vs. reveal”. The trick is to then fail at concealing. That’s harder than it looks. And the fact that it often takes more words to write in a “showing” manner raises another concern. Brevity is the soul of wit, and good writing, too. But an obsession with brevity is also how the quippy-yet-misleading phrase, “Show, don’t tell”, was created.

As a great songwriter once observed:

Narrative art must be clear, but it must also be mysterious. Something should remain unsaid, something just beyond our understanding, a secret.


Good writers do not say everything. Great writers do not say much at all.

You Have Your Hint. Now Go Home.

Any further elaboration on this topic would make me a hypocrite. I believe I have explained, in plain enough language, enough about “Show vs. tell” for you to figure out the rest yourself.

If you need a bigger Hint, check out the other entries in this miniseries.

After that, you’ll never need writing advice again.

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