Death to “Show, Don’t Tell”! | A Conversation with Rebecca Makkai and Cecilia Tan

If fiction’s war on exposition has a rallying cry, it’s: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Whether offered by teachers as a Rule of Writing or wielded as a cudgel by workshop peers, this phrase is often slapped on any expositional passage regardless of narrative needs. But why?

Author Kim Stanley Robinson says “…the advice “show don’t tell” is a zombie idea, killed forty years ago by the publication in English of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet still sadly wandering the literary landscape, confusing people.”

In this video, authors Rebecca Makkai, Cecilia Tan, and K. Tempest Bradford explore the idea that “Show, Don’t Tell” is an outdated and inherently colonialist piece of writing wisdom, offer different frameworks for analyzing how and why exposition works in narrative, and give tools to determine what to tell, what to show, and how much space each tactic gets.

This video’s closed captions have been edited for accuracy.

Resources for Death to “Show, Don’t Tell”!


Craft Books

Other Books

  • Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War by Eric Bennett – Amazon |


Participant Bios

Rebecca Makkai Author PhotoRebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, as well as the short story collection Music for Wartime. The Great Believers was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; it was the winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, the LA Times Book Prize, the Clark Fiction Prize, the Midwest Independent Booksellers Award, and the Chicago Review of Books Award; and it was one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2018.

Rebecca is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago.

Cecilia Tan Author Photo

Cecilia Tan is “simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature” for her pioneering, award-winning efforts to combine erotica with fantasy and science fiction, according to Susie Bright. She is mixed-race (Chinese-filipino-Irish-Welsh), bisexual, bigender, poly, and kinky, and has been a longtime activist and organizer in the bi and BDSM communities. Though she holds a Masters in Professional Writing and Publishing from Emerson College, Cecilia believes some of the best training and experience to be a professional writer one can get is to be found in fanfiction communities.

Tan is the founder of Circlet Press, Inc., publishers of erotic science fiction and fantasy, and has edited over 100 anthologies of fiction, as well as the being author of many books, including the ground-breaking erotic sf/fantasy short story collections Black Feathers (HarperCollins) and White Flames (Running Press), and the Magic University series (Riverdale Avenue Books). Her short stories have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Absolute Magnitude, Strange Horizons, and tons of other places, and her work has earned her numerous awards and honors including RT Magazine’s Career Achievement award in 2015 and their prestigious Pioneer Award, and induction into the Saints & Sinners LGBT Writers Hall of Fame. Her upcoming series from Tor Books, The Vanished Chronicles, will be published Real Soon Now.

K Tempest BradfordK. Tempest Bradford is an award-winning teacher, media critic, and author of fantasy and science fiction steeped in Black Girl Magic. Her debut middle grade novel, Ruby Finley vs. the Interstellar Invasion, won the 2022 Andre Norton Nebula Award and was nominated for the Best in Middle Grade IGNYTE Award.

Tempest’s short fiction has appeared in multiple anthologies and magazines, including In The Shadow of the Towers and Strange Horizons. Her media criticism and essays on diversity and representation have been published at NPR, io9, Ebony Magazine, and more.

She teaches classes and gives talks on representation and creating diverse narratives for Writing the Other and has been invited to teach at Clarion West, LitReactor, universities, and entertainment companies.