We’ve all heard this one a million times—show, don’t tell—but what does it actually mean, is there ever a good time to tell, and is showing really necessary?
What’s the Difference?
Telling is exactly that. It’s you, the writer, telling the reader what is happening. Showing is allowing your characters to act and react on their own, and letting the reader see that. It’s like being at the bank while it’s being robbed. You see it happen before your eyes. You feel the excitement, the danger, the terror. You are a part of the robbery. Telling is one or more steps removed from the actual event. It’s like listening to your friend tell you about the bank robbery he witnessed—interesting, but not nearly as exciting. Showing brings the reader closer and makes your writing more intense.
Some Signs of Telling
The most obvious sign of telling is passive writing, which is usually writing that relies on the words was/were or is/are, depending on which tense you’re using. Many times, those verbs are followed by another ending in ing.
John was running to the finish line.Mary is eating her breakfast.
Both sentences are passive, and in both cases, the writer is telling us what John and Mary did. Make them active, and John and Mary are acting on their own.
John ran to the finish line.Mary eats her breakfast.
Another sign is prepositional phrases. If you are using phrases like – soon, at last, with no thought at all, so, in an instant, before she could think, just then, when—you are probably telling.
In an instant, Mary’s cereal was gone.
The above sentence tells us Mary ate fast. To show Mary eating fast, you would simply say how she ate.
Mary gulped down her food in heaping mouthfuls. She shoveled it in faster than a coal tender feeding a train furnace.
How much more you added to the above description would depend on the importance of the scene. If you just want the reader to know Mary ate fast, the above would be enough. If you wanted to show Mary as a glutton, you might add a line showing food dribbling from her mouth. If you wanted to show her as a starving girl getting to eat, you might show a trembling hand.
Another sign is adverbs—generally words ending in ly like – unfortunately, inevitably, generally, usually, finally, certainly, and suddenly.
John finally ran to the finish line. Unfortunately, he arrived last.
Once more, the writer is telling us what happened. The words ‘finally’ and ‘unfortunately’ automatically take it out of John’s POV and put it into the narrator’s.
Scenes with no dialogue are also often telling.
Somewhere, the boat sprang a leak. Water was filling it quickly but the boys couldn’t bail fast enough. In no time at all, the sea rushed in and the boat sank like a stone. The boys were floating in the cold ocean, water up to their chins, at least two miles from shore.
The above is telling. It gets the point across, but there is no tension or suspense. It’s just the facts. And notice the telltale signs of telling. Let’s turn it into a scene of dialogue.
“We’ve sprung a leak!” John cried.
Alex stared at the water rushing into the boat. “Quick! Grab something to bail her out.”
John dropped his oar and picked up a small bucket. He swished it through the water rising higher and higher in the rowboat. Alex splashed the water out with his hands.
“It’s no use,” John said.
The ocean lapped at their ankles, their shins and knees, as the boat sunk lower and lower. Alex stared toward shore, almost two miles away.
“I can’t swim, John.”
John stared at him as the ocean began to suck the boat under. He grabbed Alex’s hand. “Just hang onto me,” he said, and he pulled Alex into the sea, water lapping at their chins.
When to Show
My personal thought is to show as much as you can, and certainly, if it’s an important scene, show it. Action scenes will become more vivid and real if they are shown. Emotional scenes become stronger and more powerful. Humorous scenes become funnier. Scary scenes become creepier. Showing pulls the reader in and helps create one of those books where the reader gets so caught up in it, they don’t hear the telephone ring, or the kids burning down the house.
When to Tell
There are times when you need to tell. Transitioning from one scene to another, and making a long period of time pass quickly, are places where you’d want to tell. If your character does something on a regular basis, like delivering newspapers or going to swim lessons, you would show what that’s like the first time, and tell all subsequent times, unless something different and important happened, in which case, you’d revert to showing. If you want something done and over with quickly, tell it.
Is Showing Really Necessary?
Well, the truth is, no. It isn’t. You can find many published books that are more telling than showing, and you can even find plenty that are all telling, except for the dialogue. Those kinds of stories are published. But look at it like buying a car. In truth, any car that will seat everyone in our family is really good enough. It will get us where we want to go. We don’t really need a radio or CD player. We don’t really need automatic windows and GPS. We don’t need heated seats. But it sure is nice having all those things. They make a car more than transportation. They make driving a much more pleasant experience.
A car with no extras is serviceable. It will do the job and get you where you need to go, but that’s about all it will do. And given a choice between a serviceable car and one with all the amenities, which would you choose?
The same holds true for stories. You might have written a great told story that is fast-paced and exciting, and an agent or editor may love it after reading it, but if the manuscript she picks up after yours is fast-paced and exciting and shown, a story with all the extras, yours will suddenly stand out as lacking and subpar and, in the end, which do you think the editor will choose?
Want to sell that latest manuscript? Don't give them what they need. Show them all the extras. Give them what they never knew they were missing.