“Show, don’t tell.” As a writer you hear it all the time
It’s very good advice. But it’s not a rule. There are no hard and fast rules for writing. Every author is different. Every book is different. Heck, every SENTENCE is different. Unless, of course, it’s a repeat of the sentence before that, but you get my point.
Yes, showing is the preferred form to communicate with your audience. Showing draws readers into the story. It involves them, forces them to use their imaginations. They don’t just read that the character gets angry, they feel the anger. But that doesn’t mean telling isn’t just as powerful and effective as showing. What it means is that telling must be used more sparingly.
So, here are my own observations about showing vs. telling. I hope these help you if you’ve ever been confused by this “rule”.
But first, a two quick and blatant examples of showing and telling.
- Showing: He stood quickly, pacing in front of the bench. His hands went into his pockets. They came back out of his pockets. Stopping, he looked at her, took a breath, and got down on one knee.
- Telling: Sharon could tell Richard was nervous.
Now that even the non-writers are on the same page, let’s talk about telling:
1. Telling is great for getting information out. In your novel, there can be as many characters you can dream up. And that can mean several different points of view (POV). So Character A is obviously going to know things that Character B doesn’t know (unless the two characters are conjoined twins). You can’t walk Character B through past events. A friend can’t go back in time and relive another person’s trauma. But if Character A is that person’s sister, A can impart the information to B. Some things are worth showing. Some things the reader needs to know, but don’t need to be detail. You see this all the time when authors summarize the events between one scene and the next. (I wish I could put in examples, but I’m not entirely certain of how to work within copyright laws.) Or when a past scene is summarized for a character that wasn’t there.
2. Telling can be extremely powerful when used sparingly. Now you don’t want to overuse this. But sometimes telling can be used to repeat an idea, for example or to communicate and emotion,
“Elaine put her hand to her forehead. It was sticky and wet. Pulling her hand away, she examined her glistening fingers. She was bleeding.”
Now there are many ways that Elaine’s surprise could have been communicated. But I wrote it the way I did, with the repetition and the blatant statement because it shows the train of the character’s thoughts. Telling is especially useful in emotional response. Sometimes you want to show the emotion move through the character. But sometimes, you want something short and sweet like, “I love you,” or “You’re a bastard”.
3. Telling can be used to show character and growth. This is kind of similar and ties in to the last point, but I feel that it’s different enough to require its own number. Let’s set up a scenario: Suppose your main character’s mom never apologizes. At the beginning of the book, you might have a scene that shows more than it tells, like this one,
“Richard’s mother blinked as Sharon finished her explanation. He’d known the truth of course, but the look of surprise on her face was gratifying.
‘Excuse me,’ Eunice said. ‘I think I need to take care of something.’ She walked off in the direction of the ladies’ room. She was gone for fifteen minutes. When she came back, she looked much the same, but it was another fifteen minutes before his mother would meet his eyes. And that she was much kinder to Sharon.”
Okay, so that’s at the beginning of the novel. She is obviously ashamed of whatever wrong opinion she had about Sharon. And she does adjust her behavior. But suppose we’re at the end of the book and Eunice is a dynamic character (a character that evidences some change over the course of the story). You might end up with a mixed scene like this:
“Richard’s mother blinked as Sharon finished her explanation. She fiddled with the clasp on her purse a moment, then she met Sharon’s eyes.
‘I was wrong,’ Eunice said. ‘I’m sorry.'”
Unlike the first example, Eunice’s change of heart isn’t implied through actions. Instead, she demonstrates her growth but outright admitting that she was wrong. As far as character growth goes, this is the more powerful scene. Maybe the previous scene set us up for this scene, but I bet you the reader is going to feel something when they finally see Eunice admit she was wrong.
Now how do you know how much you should show and how much telling you can get away with? Again, no hard and fast rule. There are a lot of variable like: genre, POV, character, audience, time period. You might have a first person narrator who operates with a 50/50 mix. Or you might have an epic fantasy novel that is primarily showing, with the telling mostly in dialogue (dialogue is almost always telling in my experience).
Before we go, a quick word about redundancy. Keep constant vigilance. I was recently rereading a favorite series and while I still think it’s well-written I noticed that the author like to make redundant statements. For example (and this is my own creation), “‘What were you thinking?’ He stood, clenching his fists and glared at her. He was angry.” Again overly simplified, but you get the idea. Be careful with this. If you’ve already shown the audience something, don’t go back and tell them the same thing in the next sentence. It clutters up your writing. Readers are smart. They’ll get it. The major exception to this is when another character makes a “Captain Obvious” observation to another character.
And that’s it. If you want to read more about showing and telling you can check out Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle and Showing & Telling by Laurie Alberts.
Let me know your own feelings on Show vs. Tell. Do you struggle with the ratio? How do you decide when to use one over the other?