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.