On Showing vs. Telling

“Show, don’t tell.” That phrase we all love, or love to hate. But despite its near-ubiquity wherever advice on writing is peddled, I’ve noticed on the various critique and discussion boards I frequent a fair amount of confusion about what showing and telling are, and even some outright resistance to the whole idea of distinguishing one mode of storytelling from another. What follows is my attempt to explain my current thinking on the subject; as always, earnest discussion of all sorts is welcomed.

First off, how do we define showing and telling, and how do you know if a particular chapter/paragraph/sentence constitutes one or the other? Allow me to propose a simple test you can apply to your work:

Rule 1: At the macro level, ask yourself whether or not the section in question constitutes a scene. Imagine your story as a movie scene. Your characters are the actors. They have their positions and their blocking directions, and they deliver their lines. The visible portion of the set constitutes the environment, as well as any sound effects or other environmental noise. Now, for some of you who tend to write visually, this may seem like a simple and obvious thing, but much fiction writing doesn’t necessarily fit this description–you could be writing narrative summary, or philosophical naval-gazing, or what have you. But whatever is going on, chances are that if you can’t picture a particular piece of writing as a scene, then that writing is mostly or all telling, not showing.

Rule 2: If you’ve gotten here, it means you can imagine your writing taking place in a scene. Now, how do you tell if an individual sentence in your scene is showing or telling? Here is the test: if the sentence is describing something the viewer of your movie can see or hear, then it’s showing. There’s a twist, though: we’re not limited by the reality of optics and sound, so our special “camera” can also pick up the way something in the scene smells, feels or tastes. We can even dive into the character’s heads and “hear” their thoughts. You, as the author/director, have complete freedom to choose which details you wish to focus on. Let’s say your scene consists of two men in black suits sitting at a patio table. You can take a wide shot, or focus on the man on the left’s face, or you can zoom in on his pinky which is tapping the tabletop. You can even spend hours going over every furrow in his chair’s wrought iron decoration, if you think anyone will care. All of that will be showing. But as soon as you write something that isn’t on camera, and that would require something like a title card or a voice-over narration for the audience to “see” it, you’re telling. So, “the man’s finger tapped on the table”–showing; I can look up on the screen and see that. “The man was nervous”–telling; there’s no way for me to know that unless a voice-over intones it (or unless a character says or thinks it, but see the note below).

Now, here comes the series of caveats:

  • This is not meant to imply that showing and telling need to be a strict binary. There are always in-betweens, arguable cases, etc.
  • Be careful of character’s thoughts. Yes, you can show what a character is thinking, but only if they’re actually thinking it at that time. People’s thoughts tend to be quick and jumbled. In a stressful situation, they are emotional. Long, detailed and/or logical analysis may work if the story is being told from the point of view of a narrator looking back on something in the past, but that is voice-over territory (think the Wonder Years; am I dating myself with this reference?).
  • Also watch dialogue. Moving exposition into dialogue can be a great way to change telling into showing, but only if its something a character would actually be saying. “Forced” or “as you know, Bob” dialogue is inexcusable.

And that brings us to the second part of the discussion: why exactly is showing vs. telling important, and why do I believe this movie metaphor works? In my opinion, the key difference between the two is that showing is passive storytelling, whereas telling is active.

With showing, you are presenting details to the reader, but not explaining anything about what those details mean. In order for your reader to understand the story, they are going to have to step inside it, to enter the world you’ve created and judge it from your character’s point of view. Obviously, the potential impact of this approach in terms of reader immersion is tremendous.

On the other hand, showing also has a cost, which is the scene itself. Even though we as authors don’t have to worry about location permits or SAG scale, there is a cost to every scene in terms of words–in general, it will always take longer to show something in a scene than to just tell the reader about it. Oftentimes, this isn’t a problem; novelists have plenty of words to spare, after all. But when it comes to information that is somewhat boring or doesn’t relate directly to the plot, you’re better off stuffing it in some narrative exposition than making the reader sit through a whole scene to get it. Movies make use of this technique as well, often bringing in voice-over narration at the beginning or end of a film to deliver back-story or quickly wrap things up.

So if there is a key idea to take away here, it’s that neither showing nor telling is “good” or “bad.” Rather, each has its uses, and learning to use each effectively is key to making your writing “good” rather than “bad.” Of course, there are ways to use telling that are almost always bad, such as when you tell the reader something you’ve just shown them:

“You fucking suck!” Jan yelled angrily.

In this case, we’ve already shown that Jan is angry, so the modifier “angrily” is simply redundant. Another example would be poor timing. You may recall that in the movie Goodfellas, the character Henry Hill often speaks from the future in voice-over–a great example of using telling to color the story. But imagine if, right in the middle of the really tense “Am I a Clown?” scene, the voice-over had suddenly said “I was really scared here that Tommy was about to do something crazy.” In addition to being redundant, such a narrative imposition would have taken the viewer out of the scene at a crucial moment and killed the suspense completely.

But that’s not to say that such interruptions can’t work in other contexts; going back to the Wonder Years, remember how the narrator (Daniel Stern) is always cutting into the middle of a scene, appearing to speak for Kevin (Fred Savage)? In this case, the viewer doesn’t mind the show constantly being interrupted, because the narrator delivers something of value, namely ironic humor. Likewise, the book I’m currently reading, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is heavy on telling with less dialogue or description, but it (usually) works because the voice of the narrator is so strong and well-written; if the narration were bland or otherwise unremarkable, the book would probably be unreadable. In both cases, there is a cost (immersion) and a benefit (a strong voice). So, for every passage and every sentence, weigh the costs and the benefits for the reader carefully, and trim as necessary. Hopefully it won’t take long before you start reaping the benefits as well.

Well, that’s it. I don’t claim this to be entirely original; I’ve read many of the elements of it elsewhere before. Still, I hope the way I’ve presented it here helps somebody. Good luck and keep writing.

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