Showing Vs. Telling
Demonstrating the Difference
"Improve Your Writing! Tips and Techniques" and
"Characters: Using them, making them, voicing them" journals. While those (excessively long) journals covered many topics, it's time to add a bit more onto each of those by giving the important ideas their own tutorial.
Table of Contents
Click each item to jump down to it!
- Introduction to Showing Vs. Telling
- Why Show?
- How to Show Instead of Tell
- When It's Better to Tell Instead of Show
Introduction to Showing Vs. Telling
You’ve probably experienced for yourself the benefits of seeing events with your own eyes rather than being informed of them. Why believe an old urban legend unless you have proof? You can see the relationship between substances for yourself with a chemistry experiment rather than reading about it.
If you’re dedicated and curious, you wouldn’t simply leave it at that and not want to investigate it with your own senses. The same idea can be applied to the details in a story. It’s a simple fact that information is better absorbed when it is demonstrated and proven rather than kept in its raw form. So why short-change your writing?
Why do I show thee? Let me count the ways…
(click each one to jump down to it!)
- Your audience can easily absorb the information
- The theme or message behind your work can be more powerfully expressed
- Your audience can be placed in the scene instead of being an onlooker
- Your characters can be connected with
- You have a better idea of how your characters would react in a given situation
- Your readers can interpret the information based on their own thoughts
- It gives you as the author more opportunities to try different plots
Clearly, showing the details of your story to your audience allows all these advantages. Now to examine each one:
1. Your audience can easily absorb the information
Most people learn better when there’s an example to go along with a lesson rather than just someone dumping out a bunch of information. Once you learn something new, an example helps you see for yourself how something works, and confirms what you just learned, so you retain it more easily.
2. The theme or message behind your work can be more powerfully expressed
Say you want to focus around the effects a tragedy has on a character emotionally. Not only will your readers more easily see and feel these effects for themselves if you show them instead of tell them, but you can more easily see and feel them too.
3. Your audience can be placed in the scene instead of being an onlooker
This is a pretty general point. Activating the senses triggers the reader’s own memories of certain sensations like the smell of bread baking or the feeling of petting a cat. The reader feels like they’re in the scene. Simply telling what’s going on can make the reader feel distant to the story and become disinterested.
4. Your characters can be connected with
This one seems fairly obvious. If you describe a character’s feelings, detailed actions, and personality in rich detail, the reader can connect with what they’re feeling / thinking / experiencing. Ex: “Sally had to watch her best friend die” VS. “Tears ran down Sally’s cheeks as she was sitting by a hospital bed. In the bed lay Monica, her now comatose best friend.”
5. You have a better idea of how your characters would react in a given situation
Describing the details of an event allows you to explore the characters’ personalities and preferred course of actions. How each character would act in situations that might occur in the future can be better determined by describing their actions any chance you get. This may also be used as a device in the story in order to create new aspects of a character’s personality and uncover a deeper part of them.
6. Your readers can interpret the information based on their own opinions
Here’s an example: If you said, “John Doe once showed up to a party two hours late, when things were already winding down. After chatting with a few people he knew well, he decided to stay in the back hallway where there wasn’t a lot of commotion. He was offered a drink by a friend, but admitted he’d rather go home and finish some work,” people are allowed to form their own opinions about John Doe.
If you said, “John Doe was a dull and boring party-pooper who had no life”, well, not everyone will agree with your opinion. Some may consider him instead more of a soft-spoken introvert who is overwhelmed easily by a party, only likes to keep a small group of friends, and likes his work. Because the reader’s opinion can vary, instead of presenting an opinionated statement about someone or something, try setting the scene for them and let them decide which way to take the information.
7. It gives you as the author more opportunities to try different plots
Rather than being limited to the straight facts (“So-and-so died” means that was the end of So-and-so), you, as the author, have an opportunity to take the story line anywhere For example, the new sentence “John Doe swung a knife at So-and-so. Blood spattered everywhere” gives you the chance to change the plot. You can trick the reader into assuming So-and-so died from that sentence, but change it up. Or never even reveal what really happened and let the reader decide for themselves whether So-and-so died or lived, which I think is a really cool device.
How to Show Instead of Tell
So you get it. You need to take your writing by the reigns, improve your skills, up the detail, yadda yadda yadda. How do I do it? you want to know. Well, there are several ways you can accomplish this based on a couple of different situations:
Situation 1: The huge concept.
Summary: You’ve dropped a major concept bomb on the reader seemingly out of nowhere with hardly any details.
Examples of ‘telling’: “So-and-so died.” “The king declared war.” “Grog the caveman discovered fire.”
Examples of the same sentences ‘showing’: “So-and-so drew her last breath desperately before collapsing.” “‘Due to their repeated invasion of our shores,’ King Person-King announced, “I hereby declare war on the Kingdom of Place!’” “Grog the caveman screamed when he felt the two sticks he’d been rubbing together were white hot.”
Commentary: The ‘telling’ sentences above are only summaries of the ‘showing’ sentences, stating the event taking place rather than recounting all the details. Tell sentences that drop a bomb can be okay if you want a sudden dramatic twist, and are sometimes their own paragraph to emphasize their suddenness.
How to change a tell into a show: Break down the action into smaller actions, like Grog’s discovering fire becoming Grog rubbing the sticks together, screaming, feeling the heat. Then add the adjectives and details. Now the sticks are white hot, and there are specifically two sticks. You can also use dialogue in place of an action description. Shakespeare sometimes used this, because having characters reference actions currently taking place limited the number of stage directions that interrupted the text, and many of these actions were minor and did not need to be a stage direction. Examples: “So, anyway, Aunt Marge, what do you think about-.. No, Auntie, don’t sit there! What do you think about the new house?” “Wow! I’m doing it! I’m skiing!”
Situation 2: The distant audience
Summary: You haven’t tapped into any of the senses yet. You audience can’t experience the scene as in-depth.
Examples of ‘telling’: “She could smell a marketplace.” “He ran his hand along the steamship’s bow.” “It was frigid outside.”
Examples of the same sentences ‘showing’: “She hadn’t walked five minutes when the distinct smells of nutmeg, ginger, and fresh fish caught her nose.” “He ran his hand along the cold, weathered steel bow that was crusted with salt and barnacles.” “The cold was so bitingly intense I could not stop my shivering, and I could feel nothing but ice crystals forming in my numbing fingers and the harsh wind whipping snow into my face.”
Commentary: Simply using the ‘tell’ sentences doesn’t nearly engage the reader’s senses as much as it could. Did you remember how cold a winter day can be when you read the last sentence? Feel the metal that was crusty with salt and barnacles?
How to change a tell into a show: Use your best sense memory to dig up what a situation looks like, smells like, feels like, etc. Ex: Describing a trip to [place]. The sky was bright blue the whole time I was there. The pavement was dusty and felt hot in the sunlight. I could smell exhaust from the road and the sweet smell of fruit trees. Then consider specifically what smells, textures, sounds will best elicit a response from the reader that will place them in the scene. Ex: The sky was the color blue of [something specific that is inherently blue, like a robin’s egg]. The pavement felt dusty and hot below my feet in the summer sunlight. I could smell the full, sweet scent of ripe pears on the pear trees mixed with the toxic stench of car exhaust.
When it’s Better to Tell Instead of Show
Sometimes it’s fine to tell instead of show. Like I mentioned above, you can sometimes use it as a dramatic effect in a story. Here’s an example of how this works:
”Tom was holding the gun at arm’s length, wondering what to do with it. He knew he could be a suspect if he held on to it and someone were to it. But then again, if he was caught throwing a gun away, there would be no doubt of his guilt.
A bullet whizzed by his head.
He quickly threw himself to the ground behind a corner to take cover before he knew what was happening…”
The sentence “a bullet whizzed by his head” is an example of telling, but here, it seems to work. Why? It is used for dramatic effect. By giving the sentence its own paragraph and stating matter-of-factly what happened, it gives the effect of suddenness and gives the reader no time to think, just like the character in the story. If we were to enhance the sentence with frilly adjectives, adverbs, and tiny details, it would lose this quality of suddenness and drama.