Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve probably had this phrase drilled into your head by now: Show don’t tell. But sometimes you need to break that rule. You can look like an amateur writer not just when you tell, but also when you show at the wrong time.
Crazy, I know.
But don’t get frazzled–I promise it will make sense by the time you’re finished reading this! Before we can break the “rule,” however, we first need to understand it. So what the heck does “show don’t tell” mean?
Showing vs. Telling
It’s really straightforward. Telling is when you state a fact outright to the reader. BAM. There it is. No muss no fuss. Showing, on the other hand, is when you allow the reader to experience the information for himself. You make it visual and sensual and bring it to life through sight, sound, touch, thoughts, reactions, dialogue etc.. But the more you tell, the more of that life you suck from your story. Let’s look at an example.
Telling: She walked down the beach.
Showing: The warm sand sank beneath her feet and she wiggled her toes in deeper. The ocean glittered beneath the noon sun, and she pushed up her sunglasses which were sliding down her sweaty nose. She veered toward the lapping waves and let them cool her feet.
The first example just states a fact. But in the second, we feel as though we are on the beach with the girl. That is the purpose of showing–to let your reader become part of your story.
So what’s so bad about telling? Well, first of all as you’ve already noticed it doesn’t draw readers in to the story. It keeps them at a distance and makes it hard to picture what is happening or share what the character is feeling.
Second, it’s like you’re talking down to your readers. If you’re constantly spelling everything out, your readers will not appreciate it. Don’t worry about your readers not “getting” it! They’re intelligent creatures and capable of keeping up, I promise. So resist the urge to explain!
And third, too much telling will slow down your story’s momentum. Every time you tell something, you’re stopping the story. Think of it this way: You’re watching a movie with a friend. It’s interesting and you’re enjoying it, but your friend keeps pausing the movie to explain what’s happening. “Did you get it?” he keeps asking. “Yes,” you grumble, annoyed by the interruptions, and think now let me watch the movie in peace!
You don’t want to be that friend. Or in this case, writer.
Showing allows you to convey important information without stopping the action of the story. Be sure to reveal your information slowly to avoid info dumps, which will clog the story’s movement. Your reader doesn’t need to know everything all at once–nor should they! Leave some things a mystery to keep them reading. Only give them what they absolutely must have to understand the current scene.
When is it Better to Tell?
Now, as fantastic as showing is, you shouldn’t show all the time! There are moments when it is better to tell. A good writer knows which strategy is appropriate for the scene in question and creates a balance between the two. As you write more, you will begin to develop this instinct. So when is it better to tell?
1. Scenes that involve traveling from one location to another where nothing significant happens in-between. Unless you are J.R.R. Tolkien, we don’t need you to describe every moment of your hero’s journey and every blade of grass he comes across. Yawn. Instead, sum it up with telling and skip ahead to the next important scene. Example:
a) Three days had passed since they had fled the forest. They were now nearing Camelot, and they were weary from riding with little pause for rest.
b) She grabbed her backpack and drove to the coffee shop where her friend was waiting for her.
2. Scenes that involve the passing of time. Similar to the above. Skip over the boring, every day filler scenes of your character’s life like what they had for breakfast, their day at school, or their lunch date with their BFF unless it’s important to the story.
3. Scenes where something is being repeated. If a character is telling a story that he has already told or is describing events that already happened, recap it with some telling (ex. He recounted his fight with the dragon to the king). Don’t re-hash the whole thing. If readers already know the information they’ll be eager for you to get on with the story and will skim over it.
4. When you’re writing a short story. Telling is a quick summary, while showing requires more words. In short stories it’s acceptable and even necessary to do more telling because you have a limited amount of space to tell the story. You can’t go into as much depth as you can in a novel.
Here are some questions to ponder as you write or edit to help you view your scenes critically and check to see if you’re using the right technique:
I think “show don’t tell” is misleading advice that can cause writers to overdo things. Perhaps better advice would be to “show and tell.” Think of balancing it in your story as 90% showing, 10% telling.
When do you think it’s better to tell rather than show? Do you struggle with telling in your story?