‘Show, don’t tell’ must be one of the – if not the – most used pieces of writerly advice. But like with so many phrases, it’s often used without further explanation, which inevitably leads to confusion, which inevitably leads to despair (or, at least, it does in my case).
This is really bad, not least because as writers we have enough to despair about already. But also because I believe that learning to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’ is a skill that can transform a writer.
It took me practice and study to really understand what my betas meant when they scribbled ‘show, don’t tell’ in the margins of my work. Why were they’ll writing this when I was describing every movement, every flicker of an eyelash?
I think this is where a lot of the confusion arises. Simply describing a scene isn’t ‘showing’. Going through every motion your MC makes isn’t ‘showing’. Beautiful prose isn’t ‘showing’.
So what is showing? Here, I’ll break down the difference between ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ and why ‘showing’ is so praised. Then we’ll go through some ways I bring ‘showing’ into my own writing – with examples. Last but not least, I’ll cover why sometimes ‘telling’ is actually the better option.
What does it mean?
Telling: when you are 'telling' in your writing, you’re conveying facts. This can be done beautifully well – a lot of description is actually ‘telling’ – but often it can be dry and push the reader away from the narrative.
The sky was a marble of blues and pinks - an example of ‘telling’. There’s nothing wrong with this!
Their swords clashed. He ducked under her shield and swivelled to face his opponent again. Raising her sword arm, his opponent let out a long battle cry and her sword came flying towards him, the force of a mountain behind it. – this is a bit dry and boring. Even though the scene should be exciting, it is in fact simply a list of actions like the writer (me) is just choreographing a scene for two actors. As a reader, I’m not dragged into the fight and don’t really care what happens to the characters.
Showing: by 'showing' you’re inviting (dragging) your reader into the story so that they have no option but to engage with the world, fall in love with your characters and root for them from the first page. ‘Showing’ helps you do this by using all five senses, and describing the character's reactions (internal and external) to the world, events and other characters instead of simply stating facts. The reader will infer facts from your descriptions based on their own experiences, and it will force them into using their imagination, pulling them into the character's world, their feelings and their experiences.
‘Showing’ isn’t complicated. It doesn’t mean you need fancy words and lyrical prose or long and unique metaphors. You don’t need to change your voice or style; it’s about shifting your perspective about how you approach description.
How do you do that? Let’s see…
Describe character's reactions
We empathise with people when we see them react or feel like we have done, when our experiences align with theirs. This is true whether you're writing about the daily struggles of a single mother in Manchester, or a half-goddess warrior fighting demonic influences with magic (although to be honest, that sounds like the same character to me). We all feel certain things in the same way. Take the following example: