“Show, Don’t Tell” is one of those golden nuggets of writing advice that has become so ubiquitous, so often re-uttered, that it has almost lost its meaning among writers trying to improve. It’s a part of our normal speech pattern at this point.
“Hey, John, great to see you!”
“You, too, Dave. Show, don’t tell, brother!”
“Right on, man.”
Getting to the heart of this counsel takes some thought because it’s not an easy or even well-defined concept. It’s worth the effort, though, because it is good advice … most of the time.
At its essence, “Show, Don’t Tell” means you should bring your readers into the belly of your story and make them feel what’s happening rather than just giving them a list of facts. It’s the difference between watching a dramatic movie about the American Revolution and reading through a list of battles in a history book.
That’s the general idea, but what does it really mean to “tell”? And what does it mean to “show”?
Let’s dig deeper.
What Is “Telling”?
In some ways, telling is the more traditional form of conveying a story. What images come to mind when you think about storytelling?
For me, it’s a group of people gathered around a campfire listening intently as one of their members unwraps a tale …
“Once upon a time, there was an old man who lived alone in a dingy, weather-beaten cabin. He spent every Saturday morning eating kids’ cereal and watching television. He was fat and bald and miserable.”
We get the idea about our protagonist, right? I mean, he’s fat, bald, and miserable. He eats cereal, watches cartoons, and lives alone. These are undeniable facts that our orator has relayed.
The setting is clear, and we didn’t have to do much work to understand it.
That’s the key to “telling” — you lay out the facts of your tale for your reader in general terms. It does the job of storytelling, but if you wanted to plop your scene into a movie, you’d have to add a lot more detail.
What Is “Showing”?
On the other hand, “showing” is itself the movie-going approach to storytelling. You don’t just tell your reader about your characters or plot points: you act them out.
In this context, our story opening from above might be transformed into something along the lines of …
“Franklin slurped the last bit of sugar-thickened milk from the cracked and crazed bowl. He grunted and smiled when he saw one last Froot Loop — a green one — clinging to the porcelain. He snatched it up with a tongue covered in sores and grimaced at the pain that shot through his rotting tooth when he chewed the round. On the TV, Bugs Bunny bid adieu, replaced by Sponge Bob. Franklin cursed his luck and fumbled for the remote, which had wedged between the roll of his gut and the food tray on his lap. He squirmed and twisted until the recliner finally gave way under his weight. His bald head slammed against the scuffed hardwood floor. As Franklin lost consciousness, the cabin walls groaned in the wind like his own joints on cold mornings.”
This description is more like a movie in itself, right? You form definite mental images of the action in the story, and Franklin’s predicament plays out on the screen of your mind.
By the end, you have a pretty good idea that Franklin is fat, bald, and unhappy — just like in the “tell” version — but you have a whole lot more, too. You’re in the action … you can feel what’s happening inside the cabin … you might even be able to taste the Froot Loops and feel the blow to the back of your head.
If I’ve done my job as a writer, you’re more likely to want to continue reading this version of the story than the “tell” version.
When Is Showing Better?
Showing, then, is about spelling out your story for readers and doing your level best to make them experience what your characters are going through. You could probably make a case for the supremacy of showing throughout much of your novel, but there are areas that deserve special attention:
- Major Characters. You can’t just dump down a list of vital statistics about your protagonist and expect readers to love or hate him. You need to develop his character and physicality through his actions and thoughts and through description of his surroundings.
- Important Locales. If your character spends most of his time at work, you can’t just say it’s sterile and cold. Try instead to express these characteristics through discussions among co-workers and descriptions of various physical features of the workplace.
- Major Plot Points. Your novel will be a series of rising tensions punctuated by turning points: plot points, midpoints, pinch points. All of these should get your full “show” attention.
- Hooks. If you want to pull your readers along from the beginning of your book to the end, you’ll probably use a series of hooks. These are the ideal places to make your audience experience your story rather than just hearing (reading) it.
When Is Telling Better?
But, as much as the standard writing advice pounds home the idea that we must “show” at every turn, it’s not the best approach in all circumstances.
If fact, there are times when telling is easily the better tactic to take in your storytelling. Among these are:
- Backstory. You often have to tell your audience about events that occurred in the past, but it’s sometimes enough to just give the facts and move on. Your focus should be on explaining how the past affects your main story without overwhelming amounts of detail.
- Short Stories. Short stories, and especially flash fiction, demand an economy of words. To keep your prose concise, you’ll want to avoid excessive “showing.”
- Minor Characters. You don’t need the kind of detail to describe the mailman who shows up four times in your novel as you do for your main character.
- Minor Scenes. Some scenes are vital but minor. These are usually short vignettes that let the audience in on a pertinent bit of information and serve to bridge larger scenes.
- Minor Setting Elements. Do you really need to drag the reader deep into the world of the circus if that’s the backdrop of your young couple’s first date? Probably not.
The Dark Side of “Show, Don’t Tell”
Aside from the idea that you don’t have put on a big “show” for every element of your story, there is a downside to an overreliance on “show, don’t tell.”
As Joshua Henkin points out in his excellent article at WritersDigest.com, novels are, in fact, not movies. That doesn’t mean the analogies I used above to illustrate “show v. tell” are bunk, but it does mean that showing all the time ignores other things novels can do aside from painting a powerful plot picture.
Like backstory, for example. And the other bulleted items in the “tell” section above.
In fact, trying to show everything all the time can obliterate the power of written fiction to jump between time frames and present story elements in generalities. All of those are important for moving readers from point to point and filling in vital information without overwhelming their senses.
By all means, show when you should, but don’t fall in love with descriptive prose to the detriment of your story and your readers.
How to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” In Your Writing
The bottom line is that, while you shouldn’t use it blindly across all elements of your fiction, “show, don’t tell” is solid advice for authors in general.
It’s tough to put into practice, though, and it can get murky when you’re in the throes of writing. It’s an inexact science that you have to practice all the time.
Here are some tips to help you employ more showing — when appropriate — in your own writing endeavors:
Be Specific. When you’re writing a scene or describing a character, don’t tell readers general information. Tell them the specifics of what is happening and how things look/smell/taste/sound/feel; let them get the picture for themselves.
Ask for More. Every time you embark on a passage, ask yourself what is happening, what your characters are doing and wearing, how they are displaying their emotions. Use the answers to start showing your audience what you see in your head.
Be General. You also have to know when to be more general. Ephemeral but important elements can bore readers if they’re too detailed, so keep your eye out for backstory or characters that can be addressed with generalities.
Plan Your Show & Tell. If you do any degree of plotting — even just a rough outline — you can get a pretty good idea beforehand of where you should be showing and where you should be telling. The big stuff, like protagonists and plot points, needs all the “show” you can muster.
Re-Evaluate. Be vigilant for too much tell or too much show as you’re proofing your drafts. Correct as necessary.
Get More Eyes. Probably your best guard against too much telling or too much showing is to get other people to read your work. They’ll be able to point out boring, wordy, or thin areas with much more objectivity than you ever could.
What do you think? Is “show, don’t tell” valuable advice for authors, or is it overdone? Let me know in the comments below.