Show don’t tell is both the best and worst advice a writer can get. It signals something is wrong with a piece of writing. But it can also be severely overused in writing groups, workshops, and in online forums when trying to describe what is wrong with a piece. In short, it can all too easily be turned into a sound bite instead of something meaningful that communicates what the reader is struggling with.
And this would be perfectly fine if many didn’t have trouble defining what show, don’t tell means; the manner in which showing and telling are different from one another, and why it is an important thing to be able to master. That is what we’re going to cover in this post. Please don’t mind the Ogre in the corner, the Gray sipping a cup of black tea, or the blood on the carpet.
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What does “Show, Don’t Tell” mean?
When people tell a writer to show, don’t tell, there is normally something wrong with a bit of writing. Either the writer is saying makes a character feel a certain way instead of describing that feeling in a way both unique to the character and understandable to the reader. Or they’ve condensed something that should be a scene into a few scant lines, leaving whatever the reader is, well, reading out of balance.
To show essentially means: show the important or critical information, tell less critical information. Or, in some cases, like a mystery in a fantasy world setting, tell critical information you don’t want the reader to immediately see.
It’s the difference between “ Aria loved the feeling crossing the river gave her.” vs. “Aria’s eyes sparkled, a grin across her face as she observed the rapids. She could spend all day jumping from slippery rock to slippery rock, testing herself. And it would still be the best thing about living in the village.” Neither is bad writing, but the second gives insight into the character in a way that can be expanded on later. The first is just bare facts.
What is the difference between showing and telling?
I touched on this in the previous sections somewhat. But show, don’t tell is separated into two things. Showing and telling, both important to a story because you can’t tell everything or show everything without the story getting bogged down and boring. Even though a writer is always telling a story as the medium is not a visual one, but one that instead builds a mental picture.
Within this framework, to show means to paint a mental picture for readers. To tell is to relay facts to the reader in place of painting a picture.
If we go back to the example of Aria crossing the river in the previous section, there are some situations where it may be a good choice to not describe how it makes her feel. If her emotions were engaged in being late for something or rescuing someone we may want to simply say she crossed the river. If the river is an obstacle or, like in the example, something she enjoys and the scene otherwise not action-packed. Then we may want to give the river more consideration because it helps get across information about her that will affect the story in an interesting manner.
How do you know when to show or tell?
The Grammar Girl website has a great article on show, don’t tell. But my take on it is that a writer should ask themselves what information they’re trying to get across. Do they want to just convey the facts about something? Or is the emotion and how that something affects the character something important to the story?
In the case of Speculative Fiction such as Horror, Sci Fi, and Fantasy for example. A writer may wish to get across bits and pieces of the setting. In other words, world building. It’s much easier to convey a specific form of pottery, or crop is highly valuable if the writer shows someone placing value in whatever this highly valuable item is.Or that you point of view character doesn’t place value on something important to other characters by having them gloss over or completely dismiss its importance.
A writer may also want to bring attention to some detail that is important but doesn’t seem to be. Details like there being something unusual about the blood in a Sci Fi Murder Mystery. Or maybe a detail really is just factual, without a need for more descriptions. They will need to employ telling in both cases. One to not dwell on the unimportant, and another in order to let the mystery unfold at an enjoyable pace instead of hitting the reader over the head with the answers.
There are a number of resources writers can access on the internet and through books to help them decipher show, don’t tell for themselves.
Grammar Girl’s Show, Don’t Tell article is a great overview for those who prefer a more analytical approach to the concept of show, don’t tell. One I would highly recommend for those interested in the general mechanics of it.
The Writing Excuses podcast, on the other hand, has frequently covered this topic from the perspective of writing fiction. While prepping for this post, I listened to season 10, episodes 23 and 26, and season 9, episode 19.
However, if someone is looking for a text they can own instead of an awesome online resource, I would have to recommend Self Editing for Fiction Writers. This well-loved text by Renni Browne and Dave King has an entire chapter dedicated to show, don’t tell.
What is your advice to people having trouble with show, don’t tell?