You’ve heard it a thousand times from writing mentors, and you’ll hear it a thousand times more:
Show, don’t tell.
But what does it mean?
If you struggle with the difference between the two, you’re not alone. Once you’ve got it, it seems simple. But until you do, this maxim causes as many questions as anything in the writing world.
Is it really that important? You bet it is. If you want your writing noticed by a publisher or an agent—and for the right reasons—it’s vital you master the art of showing.
So let’s see if I can solidify the concept in your mind right here, right now.
I want to supercharge your showing vs. telling radar—and make it simple.
Showing vs. Telling—the Difference
When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.
You’re supplying information by simply stating it. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.”
Showing would paint a picture the reader could see in her mind’s eye.
If your character is tall, your reader can deduce that because you mention others looking up when they talk with him. Or he has to duck to get through a door. Or when posing for a photo, he has to bend his knees to keep his head in proximity of others.
Rather than telling that your character is angry, show it by describing his face flushing, his throat tightening, his voice rising, his slamming a fist on the table. When you show, you don’t have to tell.
Cold? Don’t tell me; show me. Your character pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face away from the biting wind.
Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look shot.”
When you show rather than tell, you make the reader part of the experience. Rather than having everything simply imparted to him, he sees it in his mind and comes to the conclusions you want.
What could be better than engaging your reader—giving him an active role in the storytelling—or should I say the story-showing?
Telling: When they embraced she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he was shivering.
Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.
Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun
reflecting off the street.
Telling: Suzie was blind.
Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane.
Telling: It was late fall.
Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.
Telling: She was a plumber and asked where the bathroom was.
Showing: She wore coveralls carried a plunger and metal toolbox, and wrenches of various sizes hung from a leather belt around her waist. “Point me to the head,” she said.
Telling: I had a great conversation with Tim over dinner and loved hearing his stories.
Showing: I barely touched my food, riveted by Tim. “Let me tell you another story,” he said.
Is Telling Ever Acceptable?
Yes, it’s a mistake to take show, don’t tell as inviolable. While summary narrative is largely frowned upon, sometimes it’s a prudent choice. If there’s no value to the plot/tension/conflict/character arc by showing some mundane but necessary information, telling is preferable.
For instance, say you have to get your character to an important meeting and back, before the real action happens. Maybe he has to get clearance from his superiors before he can lead a secret raid.
Rather than investing several pages showing every aspect of the trip from packing, dressing, getting a cab to the airport, going through security, boarding the plane, arriving at his destination—you quickly tell that this way:
Three days later, after a trip to Washington to get the operation sanctioned by his superiors, Casey packed his weapons and camo clothes and set out to recruit his crew.
Then you immediately return to showing mode, describing his visits to trusted compatriots and getting them on board.
Why the Book Is Usually Better Than the Movie
The theater of the reader’s mind is more powerful than anything Hollywood can put on the screen. Well-written books trigger the theatre of the mind and allow readers to create their own visual.
Your writing can do the same if you master showing rather than telling.
Have another question about showing vs. telling? Ask me in the comments.