Show, don’t tell.
It’s on every writer’s blog, every cheat sheet, and every how-to-novel book out there. There are charts and graphics depicting exactly what the phrase means, as well as hints for how you can discover when you’re doing it wrong.
And how to fix it.
And it’s not horrible advice. Except for when it is.
Understanding the difference between showing and telling.
The easiest way to describe the difference between showing and telling is this. With telling, the narrator of the story experiences everything and then describes it all to the reader. Imagine if this happened in movies or plays: rather than watching the characters do things, we’re told second hand what they did.
Now, showing creates the opposite effect. Showing engages the audience, placing the narrator into the background. We get to see the characters do things and take action. It creates an empathetic link between the audience and the characters. We cheer them on, we cry for them, we fall in love with them, and we hate them.
Clearly, you can see the reason why Show, Don’t Tell is good advice, and why it’s being repeated throughout the writing community. But is it the end all be all of writing advice?
No. And here’s why.
Sometimes you need to tell more than show.
Showing inevitably lengthens the story. Think about the character who needs to make a run to the grocery story, where she will eventually meet her love interest. Now, waking up and running through her morning routine of coffee, waving to the neighbor, singing in the car on her way to the grocery store, parking, grabbing a cart…
Even trying to run through this and tell you about my example is running on and on and boring. And we haven’t even gotten to the good part of the story yet where she meets the quirky, socially awkward man who trips over a grapefruit. Imagine trying to write each of those scenes out using active, showing language. Imagine trying to read it? It would read like a poorly edited screenplay.
The truth is, telling does offer valuable insights to the story, as well as allows the readers to skip over the mundane, less essential parts of the story so they can get to the action later on in the story faster. Telling adds an element of pacing to the story that allows the reader to take a break from the action.
Where most writers go wrong is that once they know and understand the difference between showing and telling, they apply this advice to every piece of prose that leaves their keyboard.
In reality, the advice should be “Show, Don’t Just Tell.” This would be a much better piece of advice. One that would actually be helpful. If you want a hint about when you should show and when you should tell, here you go: