Show, Don't Tell


I was recently asked:

"Can I get tips on show not tell? I have been trying to incorporate it into my story telling narrative but haven’t been able to implement it."

Happy to help.

It's something I flag up when I edit my own or other people's work, but hard to explain without specific examples, because there are actually a number of different ways this advice applies (and note that not all cases of telling are bad - there are good reasons for some of them).

Infodumps

One type of telling is the infodump at the start of a story (or even at a later point) - we're told everything about the background to a place/setting/character/situation - but that separates the reader from the story. It's a hurdle they need to jump over. Many won't bother. Instead, any relevant background is better gradually revealed (shown) through actions, speech, relationships, settings, and so on - the reader pieces it together from subtle clues, so is active and interested, as opposed to smacked around the head with a brickload of exposition at the start.

Here's an example. In book A we begin with a page telling us that Joe and Mary argue a lot, and their relationship is on the verge of breaking up, and the underlying disagreements from the past are recounted. In book B we instead begin with a scene where Joe and Mary dig at each other, try to maintain poise but get drawn deeper into bickering, with hints of past betrayals and escalating viciousness. Book A begins with telling. It is cold, after-the-fact, dry and complete and uninteresting, and pushes readers away. Book B begins with showing. It is hot, live, sparking with potential, interesting, and pulls readers in. Book B doesn't tell us everything, just enough. It makes us want to know more. And we read on to find out the truth, the references, the causes, and what happens next. That's when readers are happy.

Basically, this kind of telling fails because we get engaged with stories through caring about the predicament the protagonists are in. The infodump is instead of getting to know the protagonist via their words and actions.

Telling Via Narration

Another kind of telling is the straightforward narration and commentary by the author/omniscient being. Sometimes that narrator can work well and become a character in itself (especially when it ties in to unreliable narration), but often it is a lazy way of storytelling, picked because it is easy. Clue: generally the easy route is the most-trodden and boring.

And this type of telling often also ties into infodumping, so is a double curse.

The move away from telling applies to all media, as this type in particular shows. Watch films from the 1960s-70s and you're more likely to have a narrator setting the scene and providing commentary (a la the opening of The Twilight Zone) - nowadays a lot of that background is instead revealed through the action, dialogue and cinematography (all showing), with outright narration saved for special purposes, and even then often coming across as old fashioned (as seen in the rather dire Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Books aren't the only medium where this piece of advice applies.

Wriggle Room For Readers

To illustrate a third aspect this advice might refer to, here's a brief example, which I think of as telling makes the reader passive. It's probably the type that is most subjective.

"Mary held herself still for a beat as she reined in her temper."
= Telling. There's nothing for the reader to do, no room for interpretation.

"Mary glared at John while clenching her fist so hard the nails dug into her hand."
= Showing. We aren't told she's angry, we interpret it from the context. We're shown, and make our own instinctive interpretation, meaning we are more engaged as we're involved.

A subtle difference, but I know which one I'd rather read (in general - it can be overdone, or lead to repetition if not careful). Maybe not the best example in the world, but at least it's a clear difference between a statement, and a hint.


That's just three examples if how telling can weaken a story. There are others. Generally we want to pull readers into a world and the character's lives and challenges without putting up barriers, without taking the easy route. There are more interesting ways to do things, which often separate experienced or professional writers from new authors and enthusiastic amateurs. Happy writing!

Where next? You might want to follow me and my work, or even buy my books. Many thanks!
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