I like the term, ‘show and tell’ much better than ‘show don’t tell’. Telling is a part of storytelling. It doesn’t replace showing, obviously. But these two are partners. It isn’t possible to only show.
Discernment is the name of the game. You, the writer, must be able to discern between what needs to be told, and what needs to be shown. Here’s a word picture for knowing the difference between showing and telling.
Watch the evening news. No, you don’t need a thumb-counter to calculate the number of murders in your local city. Just observe. News is a mixture of showing and telling. The facts are telling and the on-the-scene reporter is showing. Remember the tornado outbreak this year that ripped through the southeast? When the reporters began telling us what happened, we thought, ‘how awful’. But when the reporters began walking through the devastation, we felt some of the pain.
Having an anchorman tell us that x number of homes were destroyed is just a statistic in our minds, but seeing the leafless stubs that were once trees, and rubble that was once a house impacted our emotions. The stats became reality when we saw people, still in shock, wandering among the destruction. Seeing footage with our own eyes caused us to feel a small part of their pain.
That is the difference between showing and telling. Tell the reader the news reports that pass along critical information, but don’t tell the rest of the story. In order to get the reader into the plot, we need for them to see the details and feel the emotions. Take them away from the news desk and onto the scene where the action is.
Let me give an example from a recent critique. The scene is a soldier who survived a helicopter crash and is trying to find help. Let’s look at a short paragraph.
For hours he wandered with no end in sight. When he stopped to survey the area around him, he fell. While he was on the ground, he thought that where he was would be a good place to rest, but he decided against it and rose to his feet. If I rest now, then I will be waking up with the sun at its height. I must go on. He was exhausted, hungry, thousands of miles from home, and his canteen was getting low.
It’s a great story, but can be improved with a little showing. As the above paragraph stands, it’s a news report. It’s like being told about a scene. We hope the guy does well, but we don’t empathize. The mind needs to see before it can feel. If you can make the reader feel what the main character is feeling, the scene will pop. There are a lot of ways to do this, but here are some ideas I provided:
After trudging for hours through this endless desert, his feet begged for mercy. Each step felt like a hammer blow on the soles of his feet. Bob’s cramping calves struggled to the top of another sand dune. The moon that had once been overhead now dangled on the horizon, dimming the already darkened desert. With the last glimmer of light, Bob surveyed the horizon, only able to see the outlines of the dunes. No cities. No lights. His aching back begged for relief. The smooth sand at his feet would make a great rest stop, but the sun was coming. Along with its scorching rays.
Bob’s stomach joined the rest of his body in protest. Why didn’t I grab a few more rations? He swallowed and felt his throat stick and tear loose. Unholstering the canteen, Bob shook the last few drops into his parched mouth. The coming heat is going to make for a fun day.
Showing improves any scene where you want to bring the reader into the journey. However, sometimes telling is the best choice. You can tell me your protagonist dialed the phone. I don’t care about seeing him pushing the buttons. I don’t need to feel the plastic against his ear. Nor the sweat left on his ear when the call ends.
Tell when the reader needs a bite of information.
Show when the reader needs to see the scene or become emotionally involved in the story.
I’m not moved by the woman lost in the woods, feeling hot and afraid. That’s just news to me. But let me feel the dryness of her mouth, the gasping of her lungs as she climbs that hill, and the humid blanket that won’t let the sweat evaporate. Or the feeling of loss when she crests the hill only to see miles of new hills, but no civilization. Then I feel her pain and want her to find help and relief.
Tell me that she put on makeup, but show me the sweat melting it off her face. That’s when I care and want to experience the thrill of relief when she escapes.
Show and tell, but show more than you tell. Tell me the details I need to know but don’t care about, and show me the rest. Learning to discern between showing and telling is the challenge of every writer. Take a step back and ask yourself – what is the news and what is the experience. Then write accordingly.