“Show, don’t tell” is up there in my list of least favourite things of all time, alongside wet socks, people not holding the door open for others, and writers that don’t use the Oxford comma. Saying it three times into a mirror makes your tutor climb out, and give you perhaps the worst feedback you can ever receive on an assignment/piece of work; “It’s alright.” Anyone that’s been on a writing course should agree with me here, and if you’re starting one, expect to hear it often. By often, I mean daily. It’s a phrase you’ll learn to hate, but don’t worry. Your tutors aren’t trying to make you hate them; they’re actually trying to teach you something!
You might have heard the phrase uttered, but never really understood it. Before I dive into why hearing it will make you clench your fists (no, seriously), first I’ll explain what it means. Treat this like an exercise in overcoming phobias; to beat your fears, you first have to understand them.
It’s actually quite easy to understand. Let’s say you have a character, called Sarah, and she has a brother, called Tod. They both hate each other, or at least, Sarah hates Tod (because don’t all siblings hate each other, secretly or otherwise???). Maybe he’s trying to impress a girl, and Sarah decides to ruin his efforts. Her hate is important to the scene/story, and you need to convey this to the reader, in order for them to understand her later actions.
You could take the easy route, and simply say “Sarah hates Tod, because he is her brother.” That works, because now, when she messes things up for him, the reader will think “Ah, I get it, she’s doing it because she’s his sister. Makes sense.” And if the reader understands, then great, you’ve done your job! Well done you, pat yourself on the back. Right?
The above is an example of what writers call “telling”, i.e. you’ve just explicitly told the reader something. While it may be word – and time – efficient, it’s extremely lazy writing. You might think your reader will appreciate it, but believe me, if you keep doing it throughout your story, the reader will get bored. People don’t read novels to be told what happens; they like to explore the settings, the characters, and discover things for themselves.
This is where the “show” part comes in – instead of “telling” your reader that Sarah hates her brother, “show” it instead. It can be achieved in many different ways, but as an example, you could focus on Sarah’s body language during interactions with him. Make a point of showing that her body language changes when she talks to Tod, compared to people she likes; have her clinch her fists, look at her phone, or describe her inner thoughts, whenever he talks to her.
In this way, the reader will infer her animosity towards him; let your readers figure out what you’re trying to say (that she doesn’t pay attention when he speaks), and empower them in the process. When they understand this, and get to the part where she scuppers his courting attempt, your reader will go “Ah, I get it. Sarah hates Tod, that’s why she’s doing it! Yay, I understand, aren’t I awesome? Well done me, I’m going to pat myself on the back.” Use of body language is just one way you can show their feelings. Another could be in the way she speaks to him, i.e. she could give him short responses to questions, not ask him anything back etc.
If you hear your tutor, or writing colleague, telling you to “show, don’t tell” frequently, trust me when I say they aren’t trying to wind you up (even though it will). Take a step back and look at your work; how much of it have you simply “told” the reader, and where are there moments when you can “show” what’s happening? This isn’t limited to characters, either. It could be a moment where you’ve written “The house looked scary” – ask yourself, what details of the house are scary? Focus on them, describe them, and paint a mental picture for your reader which shows them it’s scary.
This doesn’t mean that “telling” has no place in your story; sometimes, it may simply be unavoidable, and can actually be quite useful. If you’ve already done a lot of “showing”, I’d say it’s perfectly acceptable to have some “telling”, so long as it’s done tastefully. In the Sarah/Tod example, you might have spent a long time already writing an elaborate passage “showing” the reader that their family is rich (for example, by describing how beautiful their house is, and the affluent area they live in). You could then have an interaction between the siblings, in which Sarah just tells Tod “I hate you.” Although this is technically “telling”, it’s utilised in dialogue, and follows “showing”, so it’s slightly more acceptable. It can also help to break up paragraphs or introduce short, snappy sentences, to give variety to your writing.
Choosing when to “show” or “tell” is tricky, and there isn’t a strict formula to it (sorry, I know how much easier it’d make writing a book if it did). I don’t feel that “telling” has zero place in writing, but knowing when to use it, and when to not, is more down to the feeling of the piece, the scene, or the context in which it’s used. I think it’s fine to use, so long as you make efforts to at least mask it, i.e. in dialogue, or else use it sparingly.
This is because “showing” is, in general terms, more preferable. At the end it all, “showing” makes everyone happy; as the writer, it should make you happy because it means you’re a better writer. Your readers will feel good about themselves for understanding the implications, and your agent/publishers will be thinking “Great, this author gets it, they can make us lots of money.” The only person “telling” really benefits is you as the writer, and only then because it’ll save you some words.
But that’s the great thing about writing; unless you’re severely limited by a word count, such as for an assignment or writing competition, you can use as many words as you want. If you’re writing a novel, or a short story, don’t sacrifice writing quality for the sake of the word count. So, take a look at your writing; where are there moments when you’ve “told” the reader something, that can be expanded/altered to “show” them instead?
And don’t fret if you find lots of instances of this, because writers of every level and experience fall victim to “telling”. As I said, sometimes it’s acceptable/unavoidable, but it’s perhaps the biggest pitfall new writers fall into when they’re starting out. If I took pictures of every time one of my tutors wrote “show here” or “too telling” on my assignments and drafts, I’d take up all the storage available on the internet.
Ok, that’s a gross exaggeration, but my point still stands. So, the next time you hear a tutor or friend say “show here, don’t tell”, don’t get angry. Take it for what it is; constructive criticism. Because useful feedback that you can actually take on board an implement is difficult to get, so cherish it every time you get it, and don’t take it as a personal attack on you and your abilities. It’s simply them trying to help you improve and, unfortunately, writing criticism tends to be painful and blunt.
At the very least, don’t hate me for writing this, and if this triggers any PTSD attacks in any of my fellow writers/writing students, I am so sorry!