What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means

I am writing to you this cloudy morning from a hotel room in Roanoke, Virginia. I’m traveling for business. That’s right – even when I’m out of state, my first priority is to you, my readers. What a guy, huh? And today, I have for you: writing advice!

“But Brian,” you scowl, “you’re an unpublished author. Are you even qualified to give writing advice?”

Ha ha! What a silly question. Of course I’m qualified. I have a blog.

So if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard this: “Show, don’t tell.” Aspiring authors reverently repeat this mantra to each other, pointing out passages of “telling” that can be fixed by “showing.” Heck, it has its own Wikipedia article. But is it good advice?

In a word: no. Or rather, yes, but it’s poorly phrased and misleading. Really it should be called “Show, don’t tell, except when you should tell, which is a lot of the time.” Catchy, I know.

First off, what do we mean by showing and telling? Telling is this: “Jenny was scared.” Showing is this: “Jenny quivered, heart pounding in her chest as she huddled in the corner.” Makes sense, right? So what can we learn from these brilliant, insightful examples that I just made up?

Well, the second one (showing) is a lot more dramatic. It’s more engaging, more specific. You get a picture in your head; it’s raw and it’s physical. You probably empathize with Jenny more. All good stuff, right? Absolutely. This is where the “Show, don’t tell” advice comes from.

But what do you notice about the first example (telling)? It’s shorter. You get the information in three words, you know instantly what’s going on. Concise is good, right? Sure. Sometimes – a lot of the time, in fact – you need telling instead of showing, and that’s why I say the advice is misleading.

How do you know which one to use? In my mind, there are two guides.

First: are you in a scene, or are you connecting two scenes together? If you’re deep in the action, following your character moment-by-moment, showing is generally better than telling. You’re trying to give your readers the same experience your character is having, something immediate, so they can feel like they’re right in the room with her – in her skin, even. On the other hand, if you’re in between scenes, maybe you’re just trying to move the plot along, and you need to summarize quickly. “After leaving town, he worked at a variety of jobs, and gradually his self-confidence grew.” This works, and there’s nothing wrong with it (though you will eventually want to show some examples of that self-confidence).

The second guide is this: what kind of information are you conveying?

If it’s cut-and-dried, factual information, telling may be the right choice. For example, if you want to let your reader know that so-and-so is the United States Secretary of Agriculture, just tell them. Imagine trying to show that: “I could see by the knowledgeable gleam in his eyes when I mentioned wheat production forecasts, that he was hardly a stranger to…” It’s exhausting. Give it to your reader straight – or, better yet, have someone mention it in conversation.

If, on the other hand, you’re making a judgment on something, such as what kind of person somebody is, or what their emotional state is, showing may be better. “She was very brave.” Weak. “She volunteered to lead the mission, though she knew her predecessor hadn’t returned.” Strong.

One final note: you can combine showing and telling, often to great effect. Telling can summarize and encapsulate the details you get by showing. “The room was a mess. Dirty socks lay strewn over the murky carpet; a moldy banana peel sat on the dresser.” Sort of a one-two punch.

As usual, I’ve rambled on longer than I wanted, but that won’t stop me from rambling more tomorrow. Time to go. Have a good day!

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