How to Show and not Tell; A guide
...and why it’s the most common piece of advice, given.
You’ve heard it before, a bit of advice given across the board for the more inexperienced writer— the oft-repeated phrase of “Show, don’t tell." Well what does that mean, exactly? To find that out, we should consider the following sentence:
Alexander was very upset.
What does that sentence appear like to you? It is obvious that someone is telling you that Alexander is upset, instead of showing it. I’m essentially asking you to take my word for it, that Alexander is upset. No, trust me, he is! I assure you! Yet I neglect to offer you any other believable portrayals in addition to the emotion, that being facial expression, body language, gestures, tone of voice, language, etc. And yet, by writing it I am demanding that you, the reader, know and understand this through my telling, of it.
But do you believe me? Probably not. You certainly don’t feel Alexander’s frustration, so why should you? Because you don’t feel it, you’re more than likely going to just accept the fact, without really feeling any true connection to the situation or character.
Any writer can point out an instance within a story where someone is showing; however, not every can point out an instance where someone is telling. The telling aspect is a much harder thing to spot, and can be more complex than the example given above. But why, you ask? Still yet, why is this so important and vital to a story beyond it becoming a more “readable” work of fiction? Here’s why:
The Human Experience
Think about how you process the world. Telling a story is an attempt to re-create the world within a reader’s mind and artificially construct an environment to reflect that. As humans we are able to speculate, interpret, draw conclusions, comprehend, and use our senses to arrive at an educated guess based on experience. That there, is the golden ticket— the fact that it is all an experience. Similarly, in writing we strive to do the same— constructing an experience for the reader. Saying things like “The chair is comfy”, robs the reader of the exact reason you are saying it in the first place- the ability to allow them to understand just how comfortable that chair truly is.
An Ineffective Tale
By telling and not showing, you are further diluting the experience in reading a work in the first place. It’ll never be a convincing work if it does not make a play on how we already experience and interpret the world. Without it, a world in which an individual is forever expressionless, no line or creases in the face to denote stress, no gestures or ‘thumbs-up’ signs to denote appreciate or luck— if we are simply continued to be told, this is the sort of world you are inviting your readers to, and it is a bleak one. The story defeats it’s own purpose in this right, and as a writer you do not want to spend your life contradicting the reason stories are written in the first place (unless of course it is intentional and done as a statement, of which that is perfectly okay).
In the example I gave above in regards to Alexander being very upset, the lack of demonstrating his emotion through a variety of physical means is one form of “telling” that is done by the more inexperienced writer. It usually involves the emotion of the character. Key word, usually. There are other instances which can involve a “lack of demonstrating”, that would need to be demonstrated on how it appears. For example, describe a car that has just been keyed in. How do you even begin to describe that? Imagine you were trying to explain to an alien what “keying” even is? You would probably have to go so far as to describe even the object used to key— which is good as long as you use it to describe within the action itself, and how it affects the performance.What I’m trying to say is, for example, take the sentence “The peach was ripe.” Try explaining what ripe is to someone that doesn’t know? Is ripe green? For all I know, it could be. In this example if you wished to describe the ripeness of a peach, you could talk about the following:
- Sort or hard
In addition to describing those types of sensations (both visual, olfactory, touch, etc.) is the use of language. You could use words such as:
So, instead of saying “The peach was ripe.” you could, instead say, “I sunk my teeth into the red-orange peach, breaking skin. It’s juice trickled against my tongue, then down my chin.”
It is then inferred through that second sentence that the peach is indeed, ripe. It would not be able to be eaten otherwise, and allowing your reader to have that bit of ability to infer will assist you in the long run.
Another way to think about describing the “undemonstrated” is through emotion. Take for example that a character is feeling very agitated. The easy means of telling it are to say, “Clarissa was agitated.” The more complex means is to consider all the factors that can make one agitated. Look around your environment, at others, and mostly a hard look at yourself. What is the motivation behind the agitation? Describe the sensation, and how it manifests itself physically and externally. For example, when agitated, do you pace? Does your character pace? Do they frequently jump from project to project? Are they fidgety? Do they play with their hair a lot, pick at their nails? Do they avoid eye contact? Or, do they hit the gym to work it off?
There are many, many forms of agitation, some that are more prominent than others and easily recognizable. Others, a person can be more calm and barely express the internal frustration. However, it will come out by other means— perhaps they become obsessive over a certain task as a way to try and relieve the agitation, or perhaps busy themselves in work. Whatever the situation it is, its easy to portray not only how the individual deals with the emotion, but also, how it is externalized.
If you’re having trouble coming up with something, think about how you feel in certain emotional states. Really begin to pay attention to the little things you do both big and small during the emotion. Write it down. Write what other people do, down. Whether they are happy, sad, restless— each individual displays something. It is up to you to be observant of yourself and others to try and bring that to your characters.
Telling: The girl was hyper.
Showing: She first jumped upon her bed, up and down, up and down, then made to run from the room in hysterics as children often do, screeching and banging against the walls.
Telling: The night was cold.
Showing: His teeth chattered, wind flowing through the locks of his unkempt hair as he wrapped his arms about himself.
Telling: The bread was soggy.
Showing: It ripped apart easily, the center of the sandwich gooey from the tomato slices inside of it.
The next issue with telling and not showing, is the lack of described action. For example perhaps someone writes, “He dropped his phone.” While actions such as these may be hard to recognize as ‘telling’ they still constitute as such. You want to describe the action as it happens in the moment, not after the fact. Why? Because you would not explain the action otherwise, were it not significant to the moment. Imagine that there is a camera in the room, and it is observing what is going on in the present. What is viewed from that camera must be relayed. The character didn’t simply drop the phone, but it slipped from his fingers, was knocked off the table, he tripped and it flew through the air, and then it hit the ground, or fell in the sink, or hit the wall. See that? Now it is not simply just dropping the phone, but it is the phone moving through space and also creating a situation which the character will react to. The phone wasn’t just dropped— it was dropped in the sink. That’s a big deal. Without that added description, you are denying your reader the importance of the action as it occurs, and the consequences of it.If you decide your character will get in a fight with another, that’s all well and good. But consider how. How will that character throw the punch? Where will the punch connect with? There’s a big difference in punching someone in the face (oh dear) as opposed to punching someone in the gut. That does two different things to the receiver of the blows and the reactions to each are vastly different. Therefore, you must be explicit and realize when you are telling someone that they punched another, and when you are showing.In the instance of the phone dropping, you’ll want to consider what noise does it makes when it hits water versus a wall? Where did it fall? How did it? Image time slowing down; register in your mind what happens from point A to point B when that singular object, drops. Also consider other detail— does the phone have a case around it? The sound would be vastly different from the sound of a case hitting the floor or wall, versus the sound of a phone with no case. Again, these are minuet details but, the writer should be considerate of them as necessary. The scene must be shown; the action shown. If it isn’t, you are robbing your readers of a very sensory experience within writing.Now, that’s not to say every action must be described in detail— it does not have to be. To describe every single action in detail would be becoming too overly-descriptive. How does one find that happy medium? Well, it’s up to the writer to decide what is mundane action versus what isn’t. You most certainly don’t want to write as though you are giving directions on where to go, or trying to handle a puppet walking through a door— you want to write out in detail the action that is important to the scene. If stepping into a pile of dog shit is important, write about it. If not, then keep it simple. If walking through the door and grabbing the keys is important, mention it in detail. If not, you can simply say “He grabbed the keys,” and although that’s telling the reader what he is doing, it is leading up to the action that is deserving of more attention, and so where you are creating that build-up be aware of where you should start slipping in more information.
The last problem that occurs with telling versus showing, is something that occurs perhaps less frequently, but is important to note nonetheless. It is usually something that could be mentioned in passing with a character, or an attempt as writing backstory without giving full knowledge of the reader of why it matters. For example, in this instance an example of telling would be, “When Jane and I met, we were inseparable.” That is telling— and can be fine if you follow the sentence with more detail and lead-in about the characters. However, as writers do, this will sometimes not end up being the case. Depending on the importance of the character and overall sentence to the story, it’s good to elaborate. If “Jane” and the narrator of my story comprise of much of the work, showing their relationship is absolutely necessary. If not, then a more brief comment on the relationship (whilst still showing it) could work as well.For example, if it is the gut of the story I could instead start off by saying:It started when we were kids— I had parked my bike out by her garage, forgetting for a moment whose garage it was. Our houses were similar— real similar, in fact, it was almost hard to distinguish back then the differences I thought they were so much alike. The roof slanted in the same way (I think, anyway) and the colors of the siding looked about right. But, it was through that confusion that we first met— her house right next to mine, and I thought I was entering my home. But the only thing that clued me in was the door. Hers was on the right side. Mine? The left. But it didn’t occur to me then. So I began to rang the doorbell, expecting my mom to open with a plate of grilled cheese sandwiches, and instead I got Jane.See how descriptive that was in comparison? It is the beginning to a story, a childhood friendship perhaps turned lovers later, but whatever the case depending on how significant a history is for a character, as a writer, you shouldn’t hesitate to go into some amount of detail.Otherwise, it’s probably not worth mentioning.
But as it were, even the rush of a spout sputtering from what water it could manage to excrete was not nearly enough to wash away all that would lay in consequence of the act he had committed. As that very same hand that had left stains of black and blue across a once pulsing and wrinkled neck, now glistened with the same motions of slow precision. Precision down the arm, to scrub and to wipe, and to feel his fingernails scraping across the surface of his skin until the stains of brown all but faded into the murky liquid depths below. An unceremonious closing to it all, with one creak of the sink’s handle. And suddenly, there was the quick shake of the hands, droplets seeming to spray out everywhere sporadic in their liberation from all it had clung to, and the heavy expanding of lungs seemed to kick start the life within him once more. His eyes seemed to wander to the creaking floorboards beneath him of their own accord, fixated not on the almost indistinct aftermath of a crime scene, but of the way the light filtering in through a window nearby had caught the dust particles floating about. For a moment he was distracted by such a simple occurrence, and his eyes seemed want to close in on themselves in a stupor before the sharp honk of a vehicle rushing past brought him back to his senses.