“More showing, less telling” is the battle cry of the the beta reader. But what does it actually mean?
First of all, let’s start by saying that showing and telling are both okay techniques when used properly. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either.
What’s wrong is using them exclusively. A book entirely told is boring. A book entirely shown is way too long and therefore also boring. So what’s the deal with using them?
Before we get started, let’s answer: what is show, and what is tell?
This is where most beginning writers, and a large number of experienced ones, trip up. In their head, they think, “Right, I’ve got this. Showing is like giving people a picture. Telling is saying the word.”
Have you ever read a phrase along the lines of “she felt her lips tug upward at the sight of their strange antics”? That’s an author who has taken this approach. Rather than saying “she smiled,” the author describes to us the action. As in, in an effort not to tell us what just happened, the author tells us what just happened.
Notice that word there: tells. Whoops.
If you want to show she’s smiling, try, “watching their strange antics made the whole day lighter for her.”
Yep, as in, don’t tell the audience she’s smiling–tell us why she would be smiling, and let us make the necessary connection. And that is how you turn tell to show.
Telling is handing us a cup of water. Showing is saying “gosh, those chips were awfully salty. My mouth is parched,” and then watching as we go get the water ourselves.
Showing is making the reader do the work. And they will do it. They will love it. Because that’s what we prefer in real life.
Which is why showing is important.
Think of the last time you argued with someone you live with. Maybe it was about cleaing–who cleans, who doesn’t. This is an argument that’s been building for a while. You’ve been cleaning more and more, and your housemate has been cleaning less and less.
Which would you prefer: yelling at your housemate “clean already!”, or having said person realize, from your scowls and your sighs and the ferocity with which you put away the dishes, that they need to get their butt in gear and clean before you attack with a skillet?
You’d prefer they figure it out without having to make yourself look like a bad guy and blurt it out.
How much more pleasing is a connection which works because you’ve both read each other’s body language correctly, seen the attraction in one another’s behavior?
Likewise, how much more devastating is it when you’ve misread their doings and acted wrongly? Or that moment when you realize that the signs that someone is angry with you are building, and you have no idea what to do, how to fix it, how to change?
Remember, the point of your story isn’t to say to the reader, “This character has difficulties.” It’s to make the reader back the character through said difficulties. And how do we connect with people? We infer things.
Alright. Now we know what showing vs. telling is, and we know why showing is an important technique.
Now the question is: how much?
The best answer I can give you is: as much as is interesting.
Show takes more time than telling. It’s easy to say “he cried.” It takes a lot more words to show us what would produce tears, and, frankly, those words might not be worth it. Therefore, if you are making a conscious choice about what to show vs. what to tell, ask yourself: will this be much better if the reader must work for it, and how immediate should this realization be?
Some things are not worth working for. A quick smile at a joke another character tells? Probably not something that needs to be worked up to. Someone quickly thinking to themselves “that’s stupid” is likewise probably good where it is. There’s no reward for the reader to work for there.
Show vs. tell can also be a matter of how long each takes. If you show someone being devastated by the news of something, it can take a few paragraphs; you might want the gut-punch of “he threw himself on the ground and wept from deepest grief” instead.
Still not sure about that? Here’s a few examples of Show vs. Tell.
Tell: Having a character say,”I’m not okay with this. In fact, I’m deeply bothered.”
Show: Over a series of pages, have the character say something worrying and then repeat something along the lines of “but I’m okay, I’m fine, I’m perfectly fine” directly after.
Tell: The contents of the letter were filled with Clarissa’s most passionate thoughts, the things she ached to do to Jeremy. Jeremy got a boner reading them.
Show: Heat overcame Jeremy’s cheeks as he read Clarissa’s letter, and he quickly excused himself from the breakfast table to read them privately. Very privately.
Tell: Having two characters discuss within the old widow’s hearing how tragic it is she’s all alone.
Show: A couple paragraphs of her sitting down to dinner, as proper as can be, all by herself at a table meant for eight, with family portraits high above.
And, for the example that perhaps illustrates this concept best:
Tell: Fatima thought the man was an idiot. He walked in front of traffic frequently and went swimming in the river in January, then wondered why he had frostbite. He even thought the sun rose in the west.
Show: Fatima thought the man was an idiot. He always used the crosswalk and never went swimming in the river in January, as if frostbite was a big deal. He even thought the sun rose in the east.
(Please note: who is an idiot in each paragraph? That is the difference between show and tell.)
I think the easiest way to sum up show vs. tell is this: show emotions, tell actions.
Show romance, tell bedroom scenes. Show tension, tell the battle. Show grief, tell us how the days are passing in the meantime.
If my characters are telling you their emotion, chances are that’s not really their emotion at the moment, it’s just what they want you to think. Actions, on the other hand, need to be told 90% of the time or we lose interest.
So? Does this answer your show vs. tell questions? Do you have any tricks you’d like to share before? Examples you believe should be added above? Has show vs. tell been tricky for you, or did it feel natural from the get-go? If it was difficult, how long did you struggle with it? Tell us in the comments below!
I’m S. Hunter Nisbet, writer of post-apocalyptic dystopian novels of the dark and gritty type. When I’m not beating my head against my desk while editing, I’m using said furniture as a platform for conjuring nightmares and coming up with stupid fan theories about Top Gear.
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Thanks for reading and see you next time!