Show, Don’t Tell: Is it That Simple?

Anyone that has ever taken a creative writing course or an interest in the subject has most likely encountered the famous phrase: show, don’t tell! I’ve received this as feedback countless times and have been told the phrase even more so. But what I haven’t often been battered over the head with, is what show, don’t tell actually bloody means!

It is often said that showing, not telling, is the best way to write fiction. This opinion often stems from the fact that people who are just beginning to write have a tendency to tell the audience about everything happening in a story, rather than show them. This, of course, is not always the case. Even established authors can be guilty of over-telling.

For those of you who may have read my review on The Queen of the Tearling, you can probably tell that I wasn’t enamoured with it. One of the reasons – of which there were many – is the author’s constant need to tell the audience how her characters are feeling. This focus on telling the reader, rather than showing them, impedes their ability to understand the character. There is nothing left to the imagination and very little which evokes emotion in a reader. Of course, this is just my opinion based on my personal preferences when it comes to reading. I’m not saying the book is bad. In fact, I should thank The Queen of the Tearling for inspiring me to write this article!

It is important to remember that writing, like all creative arts, is a subjective beast. There is value to both showing and telling. It is the overreliance on one or the other that often leads to bad writing. As to whether a writer shows or tells more, that often depends on their voice. This is all well and good, but what exactly is showing and telling? And is emphasising the show really that important?

What is showing and telling?

Showing is creating a realistic environment that makes the reader feel as if they are there or part of the world. It is the five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. It is how characters react to the world, and what they say and do.  It is subtext and subtlety.

Instead of telling us that the man your main character sees across the street is a painter, show us why the character has come to that conclusion. Are his clothes stained with paint? does he carry with him a roller caked with dry paint? Are there flakes of white paint stuck underneath his fingernails? These are all more vivid ways to evoke an image than to simply say ‘he was a painter’

Telling is how the writer gets things done, covers ground, and disseminates information to their audience. The most pertinent example I can think of is a narrator in a fable, the one who starts with ‘once upon a time.’ This is all about telling the audience what is going on. It’s removed from emotion and what is happening in the immediate moment. It is this detachment from the physical and emotional experiences of the character that means that books that only ‘tell’ are often reviewed negatively.

How to show and tell

Here is a ultra-basic tell sentence:

Phil felt tired

Unambiguous? Yes. Evocative? No. Here is the same content written as a show sentence:

Phil rubbed his eyes and stifled a yawn.

We’ve now successfully shown the reader that Phil is tired while introducing some action into the scene. It is easier to imagine Phil now that we’ve written this way.

Much of what is written about writing is absolute. Write This way, don’t write that, don’t use adverbs. It is human nature to want an absolute answer to problems (don’t quote me on that, my A level in psychology is unfortunately not enough to qualify me to talk about such things.) We like to know right from wrong, and I think that is where sayings such as ‘show, don’t tell’ come from. But topics such as this aren’t as clear cut.

Sometimes all you’ll need to move the story on is a simple:

It had been a hot night

Rather than a:

He awoke to damp sheets that smelled faintly of sweat and looked across to the window, surprised to see it ajar.

Yes, the showing example is slightly fancier and tells us that it was hot without explicitly mentioning the temperature, but is it more effective than simply telling the reader that it was a hot night?

Yes and no, depending on the context.

 

It is the balance of showing and telling that makes a novel great. If a writer only uses one or the other then the writing will often feel as though it is missing something.

Perhaps, then, it is better to show, and tell…

 

rather than to ignore the telling part completely as the ‘show, don’t tell’ quote would imply.

22 thoughts on “Show, Don’t Tell: Is it That Simple?

  1. Mandie Hines

    Ah, yes. What does it mean indeed. This is one of those tricky things where on rare occasion it is easy to identify, usually in someone else’s work. Yesterday, while I was editing, I came across this very thing. In the draft, I had this scene where I’m showing what my characters are feeling, and the next paragraph, I spell it out. And when I caught it I wondered why I’d bother telling what my characters were feeling after I’d spent the effort in showing it. I suppose that’s why it’s still a draft. It’s troublesome to know that more times than not I’m probably missing the times that I’m telling instead of showing. I always wish this rule were a little more concrete and easier to identify. Luckily there’s my writing group and then beta readers who can help if I really screw this up. At least I’m trying to be mindful of it, and maybe that’s all the more you can do. It seems that much of writing is a balancing act. Thanks for the post, Jordan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Things are so easy to miss, even when editing. It’s nice to have a writing group, beta readers, and an editor to help ease the pain. I think it’s up to the writer and their style more than anything. Some people can pull of a tell heavy piece of writing if it suites their style. I wish there was a concrete answer.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree that it is a balance, but the “show don’t tell” is still very good advice for new writers. When I look back at my earlier books there was definitely much more telling than showing, making it hard to connect with the reader or the story. But as Ben said: without any telling the story wouldn’t get anywhere. It’s the wisdom of knowing when to show and when to tell that makes a great writer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I see where you are coming from. New writers are usually hungry for good advice, and there is a lot of fantastic advice out there (a lot of which can be found in Stephen King’s ‘on writing’)

      My problem is that the advice ‘show don’t tell’ is potentially harmful when not properly explained. As both Ben and yourself have said, without any telling the story would be an overly described stationary piece. So why advise people to not tell? Better advice would consider the balance and address *when* to tell.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A great post, Jordan. I grapple with this one, having written “just the facts” for my job for so long. It seems like showing a scene is a lot of work, which by contrast, makes telling seem simplistic, too straightforward, or even lazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Joan. I’m often grappling with a lot of these topics and ‘rules’ around writing. I find that writing about them helps me question and/or internalise them. I wouldn’t call telling lazy, perhaps more efficient is a kinder term? In the end, a balance of showing and telling seems to be the right way to go about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was thinking about this just this week too. I started reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and I thought, “Wow, he’s doing a lot of telling” as he’s describing all these characters. And yet, what he was “telling” was so good and complex, that I realized that if he had “showed” it instead, I wouldn’t have reached the same conclusions as his “telling.” It would’ve taken way too long to “show” me those character qualities. I’m just in the beginning chapters, so this is an early comment of the book. I think you’re spot on when you say that it’s about “telling and showing.” The trick is finding the right combo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It is indeed about ‘telling and showing.’ The problem is finding the right combo. Then again, there is no right combo that fits everyone’s style. It’s all a manner of practice and getting feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You gave an excellent description here, and I agree that occasionally it’s okay to toss in a “tell” for the sake of clarity or momentum. While showing should be the predominant choice, sometimes an author needs to get a piece of info across without slowing everything down. This is why I have a hard time with authors who put their fists down with absolute rules, because it’s more intricate than that. But yes, for the beginning writer, best to get them in the habit of showing instead of telling. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is a topic that is the same as adverbs for me. One day I agree with using them, the next I don’t. I suppose that, as we write more, we eventually find the stance we want to take on these things. Whether it’s by principle or just because it works for us. In the end, I still think it is up to the author. That being said, I love a showy book. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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