“Show; don’t tell.” Writers take great pride in passing on this standard advice. But what does it mean to “show” instead of “tell”? What does “show don’t tell” look like? And is that a hard-and-fast rule or just a rule of thumb? Are there any situations in which you should “tell,” not “show”?
If you’ve asked writers these questions, they may have left you more confused than when you started. But I don’t think the topic needs to be couched in secret knowledge and disclaimers of “It depends.” Here is my attempt to demystify the topic.
What Is Show and Tell?
Telling, they say, summarizes the action and states blandly what the character is made of. Showing, on the other hand, reveals the character through drama, allowing you to experience her story.
For example: “She was sad.” (That’s telling.) Instead, try: “She wept.” (That’s showing.)
I guess that’s a good enough definition. But it’s incomplete at best. Consider the following further variations: “Her sadness overwhelmed her.” (Showing? Telling?) “Tears streamed from her eyes and dripped from the tip of her nose—an embarrassing sight, but she didn’t care.” (Showing?) “She cried bitterly.” (Telling? Compared to what?)
Indeed: Compared to what? There is no such thing as “show.” And there is no such thing as “tell.” You can’t really point to an expression of an idea and say, “That’s showing!” or “That’s telling!” Because really, it’s showing or telling compared to what? Each of the above examples you can call “show” or you can call “tell,” depending on the context. Each reveals more or less detail from the scene. And if that detail affects the conflict of the scene, then it’s detail you want to include, otherwise it’s detail you want to omit.
Why did my one and only true love have to die? I sat staid at the funeral, but I would cry later. For now, a friend cried for both of us, kneeling, face in her hands, weeping in streams of tears that dribbled from the tip of her nose, as mourners are wont to do. From a package beside her, she pulled tissues, which served as well as a sponge to sop up the great Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, she rocked back and forth, chanting to herself over and over a prayer to comfort the living in the midst of the dead. Friends stopped by to comfort her, offering heart-felt condolences, some weeping along with her. Many tried to offer some logic, some greater reason in this vast unexplainable universe, for my love’s unexpected death. Others merely sat next to her and rested a warm hand on her shoulder for a time. Some paused for a silent prayer for comfort. That’s all I’ll say of her, because she is not relevant to my story.
There’s plenty of “showing” in that paragraph. But none of it matters. It doesn’t even say anything about the main character, because he never reacts to what he sees. You get the sense that there’s a story in there to tell, somewhere, but we’re not telling that story right now. So why lead us on like that?
Why the mantra, “Show; don’t tell”? Why did they drill this into our young writers’ minds, as though it was a rule? Because many young writers tend to tell when they ought to be showing. The mantra, “Show; don’t tell,” is an attempt to swing the pendulum back the other way. But how do you find the right balance?
A Matter of Perspective
When you watch TV, you’ll see shots of different distances. For example, at the beginning of a scene, the director will usually include a very-wide-angle establishing shot that shows you the location (e.g., an office building or a home) where the next scene is taking place. As the scene progresses, you’ll see shots that show multiple characters at once. Some shots that show what a single character is doing. And even some shots that show a character’s face, to portray the nitty-gritty of what he’s feeling.
I look at show and tell in the same way. Show and tell are not goals, not places, as it were. They are directions, like “zoom in” or “zoom out.” In a film, there is no “close shot” or “wide shot,” there’s only “zoom in” and “zoom out.” And as a director, whether you zoom in or out depends on what you’re trying to portray in the scene. It would make zero sense to start a scene with a close-up shot of some random action happening in an office cubicle that’s completely unrelated to the story. That’s why the first shot of a scene is usually an establishing shot, showing the office building, whether it’s day or night, whether it’s sunny or raining or snowing, and so forth.
Similarly in written fiction, at the beginning of each scene, you usually place the setting and connect the scene as briefly as possible to the story so far. That means telling, not showing. Then you get into the relevant details, which means showing the relevant parts of the story, in as much detail as you need, and no more. For example, you wouldn’t zoom in on the villain’s face if he serves better as a shadowy figure that’s forever threatening the hero’s wellbeing.
Tips: How to Show and Tell
Here are some things to look for to tell whether you’re showing more or telling more:
|If you want to tell…||If you want to show…|
|Use adjectives and adverbs.||Ping-pong, using character perception & action.|
|Use the copulative (the verb “to be”).||Eradicate the copulative!|
|Explain the story to the reader.||Give the reader enough so that he can figure it out for himself.|
|Name feelings.||Allow your character to act out her feelings.|
|Talk like a psychologist. (Diagnose your character’s psychoses.)||Follow your character’s heart, for better or worse.|
|Talk about abstract concepts.||Talk about concretes that can be sensed.|
|Talk in generalities.||Talk in specifics.|
Moving you closer to the characters’ and reader’s senses is “showing,” that is, zooming in. Moving you toward generalities and glosses is “telling,” that is, zooming out.
Here’s where your creativity and self-expression come in: You want to zoom in and zoom out, in order to make sure the reader has a complete picture of the relevant happenings in the story. It’s not all about extreme close-ups: you can’t tell an effective story using just extreme close-ups. And it’s not all about establishing shots: there’s no story at all in those. It’s about using wide shots and extreme close-ups and everything in between, each to convey some part of the whole picture, in order to guide the reader through the drama in the story you want to tell.