Show and Tell

“Show, don’t tell.”

This was one of the first concepts I learned about when I started seriously studying writing. My first teacher was diligent about hammering it in–don’t tell, don’t tell, don’t tell. Never tell. I used to take it to heart, but time and experience have taught me that, like every writing rule, it isn’t as hard and fast as some people would like to believe.

The theory behind SDT is that you should allow the reader to experience your story through senses, feelings, dialogue, and action rather than through exposition and description. When it’s done correctly, it should draw your reader into the story until they feel like they’re a part of it. But when it’s overused, it can interrupt your pacing, make scenes drawn-out and boring, or destroy your reader’s suspended disbelief.

So learning this concept is two-fold. You have to learn the difference between showing and telling, and then you have to learn when to show and when to tell. A good place to start is through writing short, descriptive scenes and gradually working your way up to longer pieces. As you get into writing longer stories, you’ll start to develop a feel for things that are important to setting the tone or mood for a scene and things that aren’t as necessary.

An easy prompt for a beginner is just describing something. Here are a couple of examples.

Telling: It was a dark and stormy night.

Showing: Wind rushed through the gap under the door, bringing the chill and damp in with it. The last wisps of the evening fire flickered wildly in the draft, threatening to go out and plunge the room into total darkness. Constance got up from her chair to close the curtains against the storm as thunder shook the windowpanes. She hesitated as she peered outside to watch the rain flow down the glass, transfixed by the sight of trees dancing as the gale pushed them from side to side. The moon had vanished into the clouds, and only the occasional flicker of lightning broke midnight’s hold over the landscape.

I hope it’s obvious that I put the first one up there as a joke. It is telling, though. The second example gives readers a deeper setting; you get the sound of the wind, and the sensation of cold drafts and humidity. Then there is the character who’s torn between shutting out the storm and watching it with intense longing. The last sentence hints at darkness and a late hour. This example also suggests that this is not a modern setting–Constance isn’t a common contemporary name, there are no lights other than the fire (although it’s also possible the power is out due to the storm), and most houses nowadays are probably sealed well enough that even if there is a draft blowing in from under the door it won’t be strong enough to threaten to put out the fire in your fireplace.

Practice writing short, descriptive scenes using sensory language and trying to show rather than tell what’s going on. When you’re ready for something more challenging, try moving on to short scenes with more characters and dialogue, like the examples below.

Telling: Janet met Steve at the coffeehouse on the corner. Even though she was on time, he had already found a table and ordered for himself, which she found very rude. She went to the counter alone and ordered a latte and a pastry before sitting down across from Steve, who looked ten years older and about forty pounds heavier than his photo on the dating app.

Showing: Janet’s stomach grumbled when she breathed in the warm aroma of coffee and pastries, and she placed a placating hand over it as she scanned the room. A man sitting alone waved at her; she tried to turn her grimace into a smile when she realized he was, in fact, vaguely familiar.
“Steve?” she asked. Going from the photo on the dating app, he looked like he was old enough to be Steve’s father.
“That’s me,” he said. “Steve Smith. You must be Janet.”
“Am I late?” Janet asked, looking at the saucer of crumbs beside the half-empty cup on his table. “I’m sorry, I thought we were meeting at three.”
“No, no,” Steve said. “I got here early and decided to go ahead and order. Get yourself something and then we can sit down and talk.”
Janet let her smile collapse as she walked to the counter to order a latte and a scone. What kind of person would do that on a date? It was common courtesy to wait for your date to arrive before ordering food and eating.
I really ought to just leave, she thought as she jammed her credit card into the reader. This is going to be another awful first date.

I’m not going to break down every aspect of those for you, because I want you to do that yourself, but I will point out a few little things. Depending on the type of story you want to tell, something like that first example might be all you need. If this moment is just a blip on Janet’s radar and not a pivotal scene, you can totally tell your way through it and be fine. However, if you need us to know more about Janet or Steve, something like the second example might be more appropriate.

I didn’t show every single solitary detail about the scene or the characters because you shouldn’t hit people over the head with too much information. The reader doesn’t need a blow-by-blow description of the coffee shop; they just need to know that they’re not meeting, say, in a bar or at the park. They also don’t need to know how Janet’s eyes look like sapphires (or whatever gemstone), or that her lips are full and red like cherries, or that she’s starting to get crow’s feet. I guess I could have included hints of their clothing or accessories like laptops or briefcases, which might indicate their jobs or income levels, but I was trying to keep this short.

The point is that showing is a powerful tool that you can use to draw readers into a scene and leave them wanting more, but it can be overdone. Telling isn’t always as interesting, but sometimes you need to breeze through transitions or little moments that are necessary to keep the story moving but don’t need to be drawn out.

Go back to some of your favorite books and study a few scenes. See if you can pick out examples of showing and telling, and try to figure out if you would have made the same decision in their shoes. If you need some suggestions, I think Diana Wynne Jones was a master of showing and telling–there are some prime selections of both in Howl’s Moving Castle–and Janet Evanovich also has her moments. Kim Harrison does as well. If you have any questions, or any observations of your own, please let me know!

Image Credit: Content Pixie

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