If you’ve ever taken a writing course or read a book on how to write a novel, you would have been told ‘show, don’t tell’ at least once—perhaps several hundred times. But what exactly does it mean? Telling is when you tell the reader facts: what’s happening, how someone feels, even what’s about to happen next—spoiler alert. Showing, on the other hand, is when the writer draws an image so the reader can follow the writer into the scene they’re describing and experience everything as the characters do.
Showing Versus Telling
To get a better understanding of the difference between showing and telling and why it’s better to show than tell let’s look at some examples.
Cameron finished typing his report. He was exhausted. He pushed to his feet, deciding he should have some dinner. Suddenly, he heard a window shatter down the hall, followed by footsteps. Cameron was terrified. Someone was in his house.
This scene gets the basics across—someone’s broken into Cameron’s house—but it doesn’t let readers experience the scene for themselves, rather they’re being told what’s happened and how Cameron is feeling about it.
Cameron snapped his laptop shut and leaned back in his chair, yawning. He’d had enough of typing reports for one day. He patted his growling stomach. Suppose I should make some dinner. He pushed to his feet, about to move towards the door when the tinkle of shattering glass froze him in place, followed by the thud of boots. Cameron gulped, his heart pounding. Someone’s in the house!
This scene is no longer stagnant. Now the reader can experience what Cameron is experiencing: his exhaustion as he leans back in his chair, yawning; his hunger as his stomach growls; and his fear when he hears those footsteps. It’s as if the reader is with him in that scene, their heart pounding just as fast as his.
Let’s look at another example.
Daniel stared at the cornflakes his mum had put in front of him. He was pretty sure the milk was off because it smelt awful. There was no way he was going to eat them so he pushed the bowl onto the floor.
Daniel cringed at the cornflakes his mum had put in front of him, the sour stench of curdled milk oozing up his nostrils. He swallowed down the urge to vomit and flung the bowl away, splattering cornflakes and milk all over the floor.
Again, the reader gets to step into Daniel’s world and experience things as he does, such as the sour smell of curdled milk and just how disgusted he is with it.
Is Telling Always Wrong?
While showing is preferable to telling, there’s no rule that one must always show and never tell; in fact, doing so might get a little tiresome. For example, if you’ve just ‘shown’ readers an action scene involving your character then it’s not necessary to then follow up with a blow by blow account when the character recaps the event to someone else. In this kind of situation, it’s better to ‘tell’ by saying something along the lines of I filled the others in on everything that had happened. Another scenario where telling would be acceptable is if your character is on their way somewhere. Unless something essential to the story happens during their travel to wherever they’re going, such as finding a stray pearl on the sidewalk that has some crucial part to the story, there’s no need to show readers the path the character took. Instead, tell the readers that the character went to wherever they did: I jogged to the library.
Tips for Showing over Telling
If you’re having trouble showing the reader what’s happening then take a plunge into your narrative. See what your characters are seeing—perhaps a stack of unopened bills on the counter that could indicate whoever lives there is financially challenged. Does your character smell anything such as rotting food, or hear anything such as a dripping tap? How does your character feel? Are they angry? Sad? Happy? How are they conveying how they feel? If they’re angry perhaps they’re clenching their fists or gritting their teeth. Or maybe they’re tearing up all the unopened bills. Showing these kind of emotions and painting an image of the scene is what will yank the reader into the world you’ve created.
Sarah, Editor at Aurora House