Show, don’t tell is a rule the writers probably hear the most. It’s a good rule, but it is also often misinterpreted. Here is my take on it.
What is it?
There are several definitions floating out there on the internet.
Here is one from Janet Evanovich*
“. . . instead of stating a situation flat out, you want to let the reader discover what you’re trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue. Showing brings your characters to life.”
Let’s concentrate on this part: “… discover what you’re trying to say by watching a character in action and by listening to his dialogue…”
That sounds as if we are not reading, but watching a movie.
The purest example of show, don’t tell is visual entertainment. TV, cinema, and video games all entertain us by offering an image of the environment and characters.
When you’re interacting with visual media, you don’t really know what the character is thinking. You guess at their thoughts from their action and dialogue.
What is this soldier thinking?
My guess is, something along the lines of, “Oh crap!”**
In fiction, the writer often has the power to do the opposite: to drop the reader right into the character’s head. Instead of guessing at the thoughts, the reader will know exactly what stormy things are brewing inside heroes and villains. The equivalent for the cinema would be a voice over, but it doesn’t really do this technique justice.
I will come back to this point later but for now, I’d like to stress that being able to dive into character’s mind is a very powerful tool. Please don’t discount it.
So how does show don’t tell translate to fiction?
Let’s do a very basic example.
Tell: Nathan looked exhausted.
Now imagine that Nathan is an actor. Let’s make him Nathan Fillion, because we all like him and the name is the same. Imagine you are a director and you are trying to direct Nathan to look exhausted. Remember, you can’t actually tell anyone what Nathan is feeling, because people will be watching it. Nathan has to demonstrate that he is tired.
When I am tired, I look for a place to sit down, so I would tell Nathan to slump against the wall and close his eyes. Imagine him doing it in your head. Now describe it.
Show: Nathan slumped against the wall and closed his eyes.
Let’s put Nathan through more paces.
Tell: Nathan is happy.
Show: A big grin stretched Nathan’s lips.
Tell: Nathan is mad.
Show: Nathan’s eyebrows furrowed together.
Tell: Nathan is hungry.
Okay, this one is a bit hard. When I’m hungry, I head for the fridge. We will have to give Nathan a fridge.
Show: Nathan swung the refrigerator door open and peered inside.
Tell: It was a dark and stormy night.
Show: The wind tore at the trees, flinging icy rain from the pitch-black sky.
The key to showing is to picture things in your head. That’s it. No big secret. Picture it and write it.
Pitfalls of telling and showing.
Now that we know what it is and the difference between show and tell, why do we care?
Telling is always precise, because you are telling the reader exactly what is happening. But telling also has several pitfalls.
- a) Telling is boring. Being boring is a kiss of death. We like to interact with the narrative. Showing forces us to actually work a little bit and guess as we go along. Despite the cliche of mindless entertainment being popular, most of us like to work a little bit while we’re being entertained.
- b) Telling talks down to the reader. The writer is explaining things to the reader and nobody likes a lecture.
- c) Telling slows down the narrative to a crawl.
Example: Anna hated Nathan. She thought he was an idiot. She was very irritated because he stood her up and she had to wait for him in the restaurant. She felt humiliated, because the waiter kept asking her for her order.
How much of this could you take as a reader?
Showing also has its pitfalls.
a) Showing is imprecise.
Let’s go back to the first example.
Tell: Nathan is exhausted.
Show: Nathan slumped against the wall and closed his eyes.
Is he exhausted or desperate? Maybe he’s frustrated.
b) Showing will result in longer narrative. (But it will be more fun to read.)
Because showing is imprecise, now we have to qualify it with dialogue or Nathan’s thoughts.
Nathan slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. His feet hurt. A slow, dull ache gnawed on the muscles of his lower back.
Do you recall how above I prattled on about being able to drop the reader into character’s head? This is the spot for it.
Nathan slumped against the wall and closed his eyes. His feet hurt. A slow, dull ache gnawed on the muscles of his lower back. His entire body begged for the soft comfort of his bed.
Strictly speaking, the last sentence is telling. But, it reads well together, doesn’t it? Because we like knowing what Nathan is thinking. We already pretty much figured it out, but it’s nice to have a confirmation. That’s how we can connect to him as a character and sympathize with him.
Most of the good narrative is a blend of showing and telling. And that brings us to the chief pitfall of showing: too much.
c) You can hammer even the best of tools into the ground, if you try. If you concentrate too much on showing, you might forget that your book is not a movie.
Let me give you a wonderful example of this – me:
The man sprawled in the middle of the crossroads in plain view, clutching at the pale clumps of his entrails. The woman sagged against the wall of the house next to a small crossbow. In the subtle patina of orange eno light, the corpses seemed an inherent part of the scenery, growing from the pavement made fertile with their blood.
A foul, sluggish magic pooled over the bodies. It lay in wait, spreading its thin tendrils outward like trip wires ready for an unsuspecting passerby. Dek skirted it, careful to keep to its edge, but still it tugged at his stomach with a familiar revolting hand. Acid washed the root of his tongue and burned back down his throat.
Three small bloody scratches stretched across the cobbles from the red-stained hand of the male corpse. An upward slash and two twisted lines – the beginning of the glyph for “Clay.” He had expected nothing else.
Dek moved on to the bowman. Death had sharpened her chiseled Suda features into a rat-like grimace, exposing her teeth and bulging milky cadaver eyes. A ragged hole marred her neck, the shredded edges too torn for a knife blade, but perfect for a clay’s chitin appendage.
What is my dude thinking in this scene? Is he thinking anything? Is he a robot? People are dead in a gruesome way and he feels nothing. If you concentrate hard, you will hear wind blowing through his head. The problem is that he is a spy, whose reflexes are tightly controlled. So physically he has no reaction, and that is exactly what I am showing. Absence of reaction. Some telling thoughts wouldn’t have hurt.
Don’t be me. Use both showing and telling, each in moderation. Don’t try to make your book into a movie. It’s not; it’s a book, a written narrative.
Here is an example from Magic Burns, where Kate is trying to walk up an icy ledge to the top of a highrise. Kate is a bit afraid of heights and it’s windy:
Another gust hit me. I grit my teeth and peeled myself from the wall. Keep moving, wuss. One foot before the other. As long as I didn’t think about falling. Or looking down there… Boy, that’s high.
It’s funny, because we know she looked down, even though she was psyching herself up against it. You can’t do that in a movie format. Don’t sell the written word short.
A good rule of thumb: if you can show something, do it. But if you feel that telling something works best for the narrative, do it. Don’t hesitate. The only criteria that trumps every single rule is does it read well? If it does, go for it.
One of the best examples of telling can be found in category romances. Before you scoff, a category writer can have millions of copies of her books in print. Millions. Category romances have their faults – they are rarely subtle and are almost always over the top dramatic, but they do two things absurdly well: emotional conflict and pacing. Category romances all but fly by, they are that fast. They deal in emotion and emotion is fascinating even when it’s presented through a prism of telling.
From Mistress for a Weekend by Susan Napier
She had been such an idiot, she thought, her throat tightening at the memory of the ghastly scene that had ensued in her flat. Her friends often chided her for being too trusting, and now she had wrenching proof that they had been right. Because it would never have occurred to her to be unfaithful, she had actually been pleased that Ryan seemed to be getting on so well with her young and trendy new flatmate.****
It’s all telling, with the small exception of tightening throat. But it’s woven out of emotion and it does nothing to slow down the narrative. If you have to tell, make it interesting.
Janet Evanovich is a master of showing.
From Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich
The other woman is my sometimes-partner Lula. Lula was at this moment parading around in the bail bonds office, showing Connie and me her new outfit. Lula is a way-beyond-voluptuous black woman who was currently squashed into four-inch spike heels and a sparkly gold spandex dress that had been constructed for a much smaller woman. The neckline was low, and the only thing keeping Lula’s big boobs from popping out was the fact that the material was snagged on her nipples. The skirt was stretched tight across her ass and hung two inches below the full moon.
With Connie and Lula you get what you see.
Lula bent to take a look at the heel on her shoe, and Connie was treated to a view of the night sky.
“Crikey,” Connie said. “You need to put some underwear on.”
“I got underwear on,” Lula said. “I’m wearing my best thong. Just ’cause I used to be a ‘ho don’t mean I’m cheap. Problem is that little thong stringy gets lost in all my derriere.”*****
All showing, very little telling, all terribly fun.
Hope that helps.
*Evanovich, Janet (2006). How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author, p. 45. St. Martin’s Griffin. ISBN 0-312-35428-2.
*** Mistress for a Weekend, Susan Napier, p. 15.