One of the first pieces of advice any new writer gets is “Show, don’t tell.” This is akin to telling a new driver “Brake, not gas.” Of course you need to do both, though it’s true that only the most gifted of beginners gets the balance right.
Showing refers to evocative writing that immerses readers in a vivid, continuous dream. Think sensory description, figurative language, and those convincing details that come from close observation. Not every detail—just the ones that matter. Telling is most useful when you need to show the passage of time, summarize boring events, or give critical background information.
Like we say of gender: It’s not a dichotomy, it’s a spectrum. And neither technique is intrinsically good or bad. Showing and telling (and really, all writing) are bad when they are vague, general, abstract, clichéd, predictable, and boring. Good telling and good showing (and good writing) are vivid, specific, concrete, original, unexpected, and high-interest.
John Gardner says you can tell anything except emotions. Jeff Gerke bans all telling from the first fifty pages. Emma Darwin advises us to show the big scenes and tell the transitions. Nathan Bransford recommends presenting the evidence and letting the reader draw conclusions. To these, I’ll add: Be less of an essayist, more of a cinematographer.
Breaking it down…
WORST TELLING: Cheats the reader out of something that should be experienced.
Example 1: Summarizing important scenes. (“That was the year he worked his butt off and overcame personal obstacles to become the most respected Solitaire player on the planet.”)
Fix: Slow down; come down to earth. Root yourself in the moment. Set the scene. Add specific details. Put your characters in motion. Add dialogue and interaction. Describe their body language. What do they see, hear, smell, feel, taste?
Example 2: Getting lost in abstract ideas or in a character’s mind. Passages seem to occur in a void. (“Basketball was Bill’s greatest joy in life. He thought about it constantly. Go Warriors!”)
Fix: Same as in Example 1. What is the character actually doing, experiencing, seeing, hearing? Intersperse abstract thoughts and internal monologue with concrete scene-setting.
Example 3: Judging or interpreting for the reader. (“She was beautiful.” “He felt very angry.” “The news had a big impact on Bob.”)
Fix: Describe body language or sensations rather than naming emotions. Replace adjectives and adverbs with vivid verbs and original metaphors. Give readers the evidence, not the conclusions. (“Bob hung up the phone. A sour mass formed in his throat and descended to his gut.”)
Example 4: Over-analyzing; explaining what it all means. (“My negative attitude was the only thing holding me back.”)
Fix: You should directly state your themes and analyze your own ideas, but you shouldn’t include any of that in your story, unless you are very meta-meta and need to jazz around like that. Otherwise, leave this business to readers. Trust that they can do it (and want to).
BEST TELLING: Improves pacing by moving the story along; is used sparingly and consciously; retains the reader’s interest; delivers information economically without being intrusive. Develops characterization. Contributes to the voice/tone/mood. Is interspersed with vivid showing.
Examples: A brief insertion of backstory (“He’d flunked out of Yale three years ago”). A quick summary of boring or noncritical events. Transitions between scenes; the passage of time (“I spent the next week avoiding her calls”).
WORST SHOWING: Misdirects your readers; bores them, wastes their time, frustrates them. Bogs down your story with pointless detail.
Examples: Scenes where every movement, gesture, and utterance are lingered over. Long passages of description that don’t contribute to the story. (When I was a high school teacher, I regularly surveyed ninth graders to find out what they most hated about their most hated books. Number one response? “Lots of description.”)
Fix: Pare down your descriptions to critical, evocative details—ideally, details that perform more than one duty. They set the scene and move the story along and characterize and foreshadow future plot points and establish the voice/tone/mood.
BEST SHOWING: Paints a picture in a few strokes. Evokes a multisensory, emotion-rich dream; immerses us in the story through vivid description of characters in conflict. Makes us care about the characters, ideas, and outcomes. Allows readers to draw conclusions, make inferences, connect the dots.
Example: Whatever you were reading when you couldn’t put the book down.
Here’s a photo of some flowers!