Image: Matthew Loffhagen
‘Show, don’t tell’ is classic advice for writers – something like a ‘golden rule’, delivered with complete surety and an authoritative tone by the last generation of authors to the next. This ‘set in stone’ approach drives many authors to try and pick it apart, but it’s survived so long for a reason: it is good advice, most of the time.
You might not always be aware of its application when reading, but you’ve probably been acutely aware of its absence when watching a poorly written film or TV show, because those are visual mediums. You know, it’s those moments when characters stand around telling you what’s going on, rather than the camera just showing you. It’s all of those infamous, explaining-the-plot-while-running scenes in Dan Brown adaptations.
Learning how to ‘show’, and when to do so, is an important skill to have as a writer, and perfecting it can mean the difference between rich, immersive writing and flat, dull prose.
What’s the difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’?
Telling is a straightforward explanation of what’s happening: ‘There is a dog in the next room’. Showing is conveying the same information through more indirect means: ‘Snuffling could be heard under the door of the next room, punctuated by the occasional yip or whine’.
Of course, there’s a little more at play than just taking different paths to the same result. Consider the examples below; they both describe the same scene, but the first uses telling and the second uses showing.
- She knows she needs another coffee, so she walks over to the machine and pours herself a cup.
- Hayley, feeling her concentration waning, decides it’s time for that mid-morning second cup of coffee. Steve helpfully refilled the machine just five minutes ago, and she can already smell the familiar, earthy aroma filling the office. Getting up from her desk, she wiggles her pencil skirt back into its proper position and sidles over to claim the first cupful.
The difference is huge, right?
Each one conveys the same basic information – which is that a woman is getting coffee – but through showing your reader the scene instead of just telling them about it, you can layer a lot more exposition and insight over the same actions. How you convey something is as important as what you’re conveying. Or, to break it down even further: Telling informs. Showing engages.Telling informs. Showing engages.Click To Tweet
How do you ‘show’?
The easiest way to learn how to show rather than tell is actually to do exactly the same exercise I just did above. Write a scene by telling it and then rewrite the same scene to show instead. Think of the difference between the two as cause and effect. A cause can be an action, a need, a feeling, or a line of dialogue. Identify the cause and work out what all the possible effects of that cause are.
In the scene above, for instance, the causes are a woman wanting and then getting a cup of coffee. The effects of her wanting coffee are her feeling like she’s losing concentration and then smelling the freshly made coffee in the air. The effects of her getting the coffee are her having to readjust her skirt when she gets up, and wanting to get the first cup before anyone else.‘Showing’ creates natural gaps in your narrative to describe the characters and setting.Click To Tweet
Showing also allows you to sneak subtle exposition into a scene and avoid Professor Langdon having to run around the Louvre barking it all out loud for you. Think about it: what did you learn about that woman through a simple scene about her getting a cup of coffee?
- You learned that her name was ‘Hayley’,
- You learned that she usually has at least two cups of coffee every morning,
- You learned that she works in an office with a guy called Steve,
- You learned that she was wearing a pencil skirt.
What about the setting and context of the scene? Rather than me telling you it was taking place in an office at mid-morning, I sprinkled those details into the scene to add more richness to the description. And the more specific you can be with those details, the more immersive the scene will feel to your reader. I could have just told you that it was morning, but by pinpointing it as mid-morning, I gave you a more vivid and precise sense of the time of day.
I also told you not only that there was a pot of coffee brewing, but how it smelt. This is another key tool for effective showing: sensory language. Try and imagine that you have to describe something to an alien who is totally, um, alien to every human experience – even the simplest ones. If that alien has only ever consumed hot cups of Martian goo, how would you convey the experience of Hayley drinking a cup of a coffee to them? What does the coffee smell like? Taste like? Look like? What sounds does the machine make as it brews? How hot is it? Is it strong enough?
The perils of ‘showing’
What’s the one difference you can see between those two versions of the same scene without even reading them? The length. Showing makes your writing multiply as if by magic, feeding off however much detail you include. This is a plus if you’re trying to boost your word count, but a negative if you’re trying to cut a manuscript down to size.‘Showing’ takes longer than ‘telling’ – the choice gives you more control over length.Click To Tweet
There’s also the question of whether ‘showing’ is appropriate for the information you want to share. You wouldn’t, for instance, tell the reader it was Tuesday using the sentence below.
Ian sighed, cursing the Norse god Tyr, namesake of the torturous second workday of the week.
Painting a rich, full impression of a scene is important, but the reader doesn’t have infinite patience for mellifluously poetic prose. Sometimes, you need to deliver information flatly.
Mostly show, but sometimes tell
When I was a kid, my piano teacher told me that silence was just as important as sound in a piece of music. For those who don’t read music, you might be surprised to know that there’s a written signature for silence. Composers will consciously build moments of quiet into their work. If you think of showing as sound and telling as silence, the same is true for writers. Sound is what you need most of the time, but moments of silence can be effective in contrast.
Maybe the advice should be ‘Mostly show, sometimes tell’.Click To Tweet
Telling is important, but it’s also the easiest way to write, and a more natural recourse that does far less for your writing. For most authors, it’s a case of knowing how to tell and learning how to show. As with any skill, you’re likely to get a little lost in your new abilities when they first develop, so be sure to think about whether you actually want your reader to engage with a detail, or whether you want to just deliver it and move on.
Knowing when to choose one over the other will come from a mixture of experience, practice, instinct, and some reliable feedback. If you only ever show, you risk overloading your reader with unnecessary information. If you only ever tell, your descriptions could be dull and perfunctory. In terms of advice, ‘Mostly show, sometimes tell’ might be more accurate. Shame it doesn’t have the same ring to it.
For more on showing and telling, check out Here’s Why Telling Is Just As Important As Showing. Or, for more instantly applicable writing advice, try How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words. Do you have an example of great showing or transcendent telling? Let me know in the comments.