The advice “show; don’t tell” is readily dished out by writers. Which is all well and good if you happen to know what on Earth they mean by that.
The truth is that once you see the difference you can easily find yourself wondering why other people have no idea what you are chirping on about. It is just one of those things. I’m going to try and explain what “show; don’t tell” actually means.
What do we mean by “tell”?
Surely, you might ask, telling is what storytelling is all about. If I say to you that Bob hates to be told what to do. I’ve, well, told you. I have, not to put too fine a point on it, done my job. right?
That is all well and good. It is now one more fact that you can file away under W for “why should I give two hoots about it?” Which is sort of the problem. Telling is too often just boring.
Anyway, we inevitably get to the end of the story. Bob has learned his lesson and allows Linda to tell him what to do. Rather than being a character-defining moment, it just leaves the more attentive reader wondering why the opening description was so darn inaccurate. The emotional payoff is compromised because the reader was never fully sold on the “facts” you told them.
How can we get our readers to really buy into the facts we need them to know?
Which is how we come to “showing”.
This next bit is a bit subtle and requires an understanding of the basics of storytelling. Grandma, this is an egg. You suck them like this.
When we tell a story we use words to paint a picture in the mind of a reader. A lot of that boils down to telling the reader things. What you tell the reader counts for a lot. What you say shapes the picture in the reader’s mind. If you can paint a picture that lets the reader see what you want them to know, it becomes a lot more vividly real.
If you do this right, you can allow the reader to see things for themselves. For example, if I tell you that when Bob was told you can’t smoke in a petrol station, he sparked up anyway and caused a huge fireball that he was lucky to escape. I’m still just telling you things but I have also allowed you to see Bob’s refusal to obey instructions first hand. I have, to be blunt, shown you.
Want a better example? Keep reading.
Going from telling to showing
What about getting to what Bob looks like? I could tell you that Bob is 6’3″ and works out. It is a pretty limp description – just a bunch of facts.
Bob was 6’3″ and well toned from where he worked out.
I could be a bit more well rounded and say Bob was tall and buff. That gives you the same information and loads it with a little emotional meaning. A reader is more likely to be able to visualise that description. It is still “telling” the reader what to see.
Bob was tall and buff. He felexed his muscles.
On the other hand, I could have Linda look up at Bob and admire his abs. That gives your reader the same information but also tells us something about Linda. We see Bob as Linda does and we also see that he is tall (Linda has to look up). We know that he is buff because Linda is checking out his well-toned muscles. We’ve passed on the facts and moved the plot forward by showing the reader and not simply telling them.
Linda looked up at Bob towering over her. His biceps hypnotised her as they flexed arround under that tight cotton shirt.
That third description only lets you know about how tall Bob is because you imagined that fact. You imagined it because as a writer I showed you the right mental image. You did not need to be told Bob was tall, you experienced that he was.
What other writers really mean when they say “show; don’t tell”
The truth is that you can’t “not tell”. It’s can’t be done. Not without not telling the story either. What they are trying to say to you is “tell me something else that will let me see this thing for myself”. They want you to use their imagination instead of just their memory.
Strategies for “show; don’t tell”
Showing information is a good storytelling habit to get into. Brandon Sanderson (a very talented author) gives a list of ways to show things rather than tell them. Which include dialogue, character thoughts, and actions.
Over to you
I’ll confess, this article was written late at night when I could not sleep due to a toothache. I hope that I have shown you the difference between showing and telling and why writers say “show; don’t tell” quite so often.
If you have any questions (or if you want me to take another crack at it) please ask away.
Do you have any tricks to avoid doing too much telling?
You know where the comments are and how to use them.