The age-old advice to writers that they should “show, don’t tell” their story is so common that it’s a cliché. However, like many cliches, the recommendation is true. All writers need to show not tell because storytelling is about capturing a reader’s imagination. Readers want to be entertained and immersed in the world of the book. The only way for that to happen is if the writer creates an experience that feels real. In this Show, Don’t Tell article, I’ll share the definition of showing versus telling, provide examples, and warn you about why telling is bad. We’ll also look at how to spot this common mistake in your own work and fix it.
Defining Show, Don’t Tell
Telling a story is a summary of that tale. This is the “just the facts, ma’am” part; it’s a relaying of the vital information. Think of it as a police report. Police reports contain data that is inherently dramatic: they’re often about crime. Someone’s property was taken or their privacy was breached or their body was injured in a fight. Lots of human emotions surround such actions, like fear or dread or hurt. However, a police report doesn’t capture that action. It’s kinda boring, actually, despite the drama involved. The reason it’s boring is because it’s a dry description or summary of the plot. This is what happens when writers tell their story.
In order to write a book that other people want to read, you need to show the story unfolding. Writers who show, don’t tell use action, dialogue, tension, monologue, and body language to pull the reader in. Showing is when you write about the burglar planning the break-in with his co-conspirator, when you show them waiting for the residents to turn off the lights and go to bed. It’s when the homeowners are awakened in the middle of the night to a sharp break of glass, their slumber interrupted by fear. It’s hearing the footfalls of a stranger breaching the sanctity of their home, and it’s about the rapid pulse and sweat of the intruders, wondering if the residents own a gun. Showing provides tension, mystery, and emotion.
Examples of ‘Show’
Explaining how showing versus telling works in a novel is really me…well, telling. Nothing illustrates the point quite like examples, so here are a few to get the feel of how writers employ craft to set the scene, convey a feeling, and rope the reader in.
Telling: Daniel was sleepy.
Showing: Ringing. It comes in intervals. It begins, stops, then begins again. Daniel’s eyes flutter. His body feels nailed to the bed, his limbs too heavy to lift.
Telling: Workers in the slaughterhouse were not treated well.
Showing: He arrives at el matadero, the cavernous slaughterhouse…. The same clothes are worn for the entire workweek. On the sixth day, employees bring their uniforms, stiff and rank with decay, home to wash.
-both examples are from Ruta Sepetys’ The Fountains of Silence (2020)
Evaluating the Examples
The book I chose the examples from is a YA historical about life in Spain under Franco’s regime in the 1960s. The author is a master at choosing evocative examples to show what’s happening to her characters. In the first sample, Daniel is struggling with jet lag, as he came to Madrid from Texas. Rather than stating that fact, she opens the door to Daniel’s experience of the intense, almost drugged feeling a person from many time zones away suffers. Using a play-by-play of his confusion at hearing a phone ring is the way to pull the reader into the character’s life.
In the second example, the author cuts to the quick by using such a gross, but vivid, example of what the working conditions were like in the slaughterhouse. I don’t know about you, but my stomach turned as I imagined the grime on that uniform. In this way, Sepetys was successful at doing multiple things at once: I felt sorry for the character, I glimpsed his plight, and I imagined how hard life was.
To Tell or Not to Tell
There are times in your novel when you’re going to have to do some telling. That’s fine. If there’s a lot of information to get across, telling is more efficient. It’s useful if you have to summarize or explain a complex idea (for instance, how a spaceship operates, if you’re writing SciFi). However, people read novels to go on an adventure, and that adventure occurs when you show how the story unfolds, piece by piece. Showing draws readers in and keeps them on the edge of their seats as the plot is revealed. It involves misdirecting, and then ultimately delivering the punchline. The ending of the book, like a good punchline in a joke, should be a little unexpected, clever, and satisfying.
When you tell instead of show, you put up a wall, keeping the reader at an arm’s length from the action. Your reader won’t really know your characters or empathize with them. She won’t care what happens to them, she’ll be bored, and then, she’ll shut the book.
Are You Telling?
No matter how carefully you craft your book, it will often improve when you put it in front of a live audience. The words have been written, but do they have the impact you intended? Is your point coming across? Do people find humor in the funny spots or pathos in the sad ones? In other words, once you’ve completed your draft, find a beta reader. Get someone you trust with a sharp eye and the ability to be honest, yet kind. Ask them what they think.
If your reader says that your book felt flat, rushed, predictable, or that they didn’t “connect” with your main characters…you might have done more telling than showing. These criticisms are classic markers of a lack of storytelling, which is another way to say writing in a way that hooks your reader.
How to Fix It
No matter your genre, readers want suspense. They want it even if they are guaranteed to know how it ends before they start it. Think romance novels, which promise a happily ever after or a detective story, where you know the recurring character sleuth will ultimately solve the case. People are signing up for the journey, not the destination, so make sure to keep them guessing along the way.
One of the best ways to do that is to sell them the loaf of bread crumb by crumb. This means that you want to let the story unfold on a strictly need-to-know basis. Reveal information slowly—don’t give it away all at once. Keep the conflict high and the characters (and readers) guessing. This makes for an emotional experience—stress, hope, anxiety. They sound like negative feelings, but if you’re eliciting them from your reader, you’re doing something right.