I dare say all writers have been told at least once to ‘show not tell’. This advice means that one should write showing actions and sensory details to convey the feelings and emotions of the character. At first glance, this sounds like solid advice, but it doesn’t hold any deeper examination.
But lefts begin with examples of showing and telling:
Show: Yellow leaves covered the forest bed.
Tell: It was autumn.
Show: Anna wrapped the shawl tighter around her shoulders.
Tell: Anna was cold.
As we can conclude from these examples, showing is detailed descriptions and usually brings forth feeling in the reader. Telling, on the other hand, is a more factual description meant to provide information.
The reason ‘show don’t tell’ is bad advice is because you need both! You need to show AND tell.
Hold on, let me go to my bookshelf and pull out a few examples…
Example: The picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
Show: ‘I wonder is that really so, Harry?’ said Dorian Gray, putting some perfume on his handkerchief out of a large gold-topped bottle that stood on the table.
Tell: He began to wonder whether we could ever make psychology so absolute a science that each little spring of life would be revealed to us. As it was, we always misunderstood ourselves, and rarely understood others.
Example: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Show: Montag’s hand closed like a mouth, crushed the book with wild devotion, with an insanity of mindlessness to his chest. The men above were hurling shovelfuls of magazines into the dusty air.
Tell: Would he have time for a speech? as the hound seized him, in view of ten or twenty or thirty million people, mightn’t he sum up his entire life in the last week in one single phrase or a word that would stay with them long after the Hound had turned, clenching him in its metal-plier jaws, and trotted off in the darkness, while the camera remained stationary, watching the creature dwindle in the distance – a splendid fade out!
Example: Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Show: The man’s flesh was pale, and his blood pooled upon the rocky floor below him. Septimus crouched down beside the body, and, gingerly, lifted its head by the hair; its throat had been cut, expertly, slit from one ear to the other.
Tell: He wondered as they walked what his father had in mind. Perhaps the two of them together would overpower the guards. Perhaps his father would create some kind of distraction, and allow him to slip through… perhaps…
As you can see from these highly successful classic book examples, we do need to tell sometimes. All great writers tell! So now that we have debunked the bad advice ‘show don’t tell’ we can move on to better advice:
‘Show more than you tell’
Showing evokes more emotion in the reader as it is a more immersive experience for them. Thus, it makes sense to show whenever possible. However, intervals of telling also support the story when done the right way and right places, such as between scenes.
If it helps, you can think about the difference between showing and telling as you would the difference between feelings and emotion.
Emotions (corresponding with showing) are automatic responses triggered by stimuli. For example, the sadness we feel when our friend dies, the nervousness we feel when in a job interview or the anger we feel when we see injustice. Show these things in your writing. Don’t tell the reader your character is jealous but show them reacting in various ways so that the reader can realize, on their own, that the character is jealous.
Feelings (corresponding with telling) are subjective perceptions of emotions. They are mental processes, not reactions, unlike emotions. For example, the way we rationalize to ourselves the death of a loved one, the way we prep talk ourselves for self-confidence before a job interview or the way we try to make sense of the injustice in the world.
To sum it all up, show whenever you can and tell when you cant.