If there’s one thing that every single writer hears, usually over and over, it’s “Show, don’t tell.” Good advice—but very incomplete. What’s the difference between showing and telling? What’s wrong with telling? Does that mean you have to show everything? How do you translate the advice to actual fiction?
The answers, respectively, are 1) not as much as some critics would have you believe, 2) nothing, 3) no and 4)with forethought.
Writing in a continuum
Both showing and telling are forms of description. “The baby drooled on her new dress” tells you what the baby is doing. It also shows you what she’s doing, in that the sentence enables you to form a mental picture, a scene you can “see.” Because a description can be interpreted in both these ways, there’s a very large overlap between telling and showing. This is what makes the criticism, “You told your story, you didn’t show it,” so frustrating.
It helps to understand telling versus showing not as a dichotomy, but as a continuum. A sentence like the one above falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum: It both shows and tells. So does this paragraph:
Brian stared at the wreck of what, two hours ago, had been his home. The tornado had hurled debris, most of it unrecognizable, for two hundred yards. He saw a chunk of wood from his dining room table and bent to pick it up. That table had been in his family for a hundred years.
We are being told what the tornado did, and we are also being shown a scene we can visualize. This is a middle ground paragraph.
Where telling and showing are distinct is at the ends of our continuum. At one end is exposition, which is pure telling; at the other end is dramatization, which is very close to the playwright’s art. This is an example of exposition, telling us the story:
Prince Victor married the beautiful Lady Gianina in a huge celebration that lasted four days. Nobles attended from as far away as Balustrina. Immediately after the wedding, the royal couple left for a honeymoon at the castle of Tibinol in the remote, beautiful highlands. There, Gianina discovered that she didn’t like her new husband at all.
What makes this exposition? It summarizes, rather than dramatizes. We never see any one scene in detail; instead, many events are compressed into an abbreviated form. We don’t get the impression that we are flies on the walls of either the wedding hall or the honeymoon castle. Flies observe firsthand. We are not observing—we are being told what happened, secondhand and in summary.
At the other end of the continuum sits dramatization, which almost always involves dialogue. We are flies during dramatization: hearing firsthand what people say, seeing what they do. This scene is shown, not told:
The new royal couple settled themselves in the coach, and it began to move forward. Gianina smiled at her husband. “Tell me, my lord, what Tibinol is like.”
“Like any other highland castle, I suppose.”
“Is it beautiful?”
“If you like wilds. I don’t,” Victor said, looking bored.
“What kind of scenery do you like best, then?”
“I don’t like scenery at all. And I especially don’t like women who keep asking pointless questions.”
Gianina felt as if she’d been punched in the stomach. What had she said wrong?
Do you feel the difference? A story that is being shown to us will have many such scenes, in which we observe and hear firsthand, with the opportunity to draw our own conclusions about the implications of those speeches and actions.
When to tell it like it is
Does this mean that exposition is always bad? That you should never write passages that tell rather than show?
No, not at all. Exposition has legitimate uses. It’s the most efficient way to summarize background information, including necessary information about a character’s history. It can set the stage well for a major dramatized event. And it is completely necessary in certain kinds of writing. Three examples are lawyer novels, where the laws and court decisions shaping the action may need to be explained; science fiction, where strange technology may need to be detailed; and historicals, where customs may need their contexts explained.
You do not have to dramatize everything. In fact, you usually can’t, not without ending up with a half-million-word novel. This brings us to the heart of the show vs. tell problem: deciding what to dramatize, what to describe in a combination of telling and showing and what to tell in pure exposition.
Partly, this is a matter of individual style. Some writers, such as Hemingway, are famous for their intense dramatization; some of Hemingway’s stories are more than 95 percent dialogue (see “Hills Like White Elephants”). Other writers, such as Eudora Welty and John Cheever, rely heavily on beautifully written exposition.
Most commercial fiction relies on a blend of showing and telling, with more of the former than the latter. There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some general guidelines.
1. Do not lead with exposition. This is a common mistake. Your first scene should definitely be one we can observe firsthand to get us quickly into the story (“the narrative hook”). Use dialogue, description, characters’ thoughts: whatever will dramatize your opening.
2. Match exposition to pace. The faster paced your story, the shorter your expository sections should be. An action story must be shown. We want to be there! If your tale relies on events piling up on each other at dizzying speed, keep up the speed by including only very short pieces of exposition, since exposition almost always slows a reader down. Conversely, if yours is a leisurely tale with many literary digressions, you can tell us much more.
3. Try to alternate shown scenes with told exposition. If your reader has been given a rousing opening, he will usually then sit still for at least some exposition. But be sure to follow that chunk of telling with one or more dramatized scenes. That’s much more effective than being given section after section of telling. Remember: The reader wants to feel present, a fly on the wall, for as much of the story as is feasible.
4. Always show your climax. The climax is the place where the opposing forces in your story finally clash. This is true whether those opposing forces are two armies or two values inside a character’s soul. The climax needs to be as vivid as you can make it, and that means dramatizing it with every narrative tool at your command: dialogue, action, description, thoughts, feelings. Put us right there.
Back to the show
Let’s return to your story, the one that has been criticized for “telling, not showing.” How do you apply to it everything we’ve discussed?
Start by marking the story into sections: scene one, a chunk of exposition, another chunk of exposition, scene two, a stretch of middle ground, another stretch of middle ground, a chunk of exposition, scene three. … Take your time with this, finding the beginning and the end of each stretch, and judging as fairly as you can which are telling, which showing and which in the middle. You might even ask a know-ledgeable and willing friend to do the same to a photocopy of your story and see how closely the two versions match.
Now examine the results. Do you have mostly tellings and middle grounds? Does the pattern meet the guidelines above? Probably the answer to the first question is yes and the second no, which is why your critic thought your story told too much and showed too little.
Now comes the crucial step: revision. It may help to move chunks of story around, but the best help is to rewrite some scenes for greater dramatization. Choose which ones you will dramatize more fully. Include the opening, the climax and other scenes you think will benefit from greater showing.
Start revising the first of your chosen scenes. For this, become that fly on the wall. Record only what the fly can see and hear and smell. Make it as vivid as you can. After you complete that much, you can then go back and add the characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, which will make the scene more dramatic yet. Keep exposition to an absolute minimum. If there are things that need to be told, consider putting them in a prior chunk of exposition. If you can’t, at least keep the exposition brief.
How does the scene look now? More vivid? You’ve shown it, not told it. And, to paraphrase the tag line from the old TV show, “We are there!”
The plea, “Tell me a story,” is probably as old as the human race. But it would be more accurate to say, “Show me a story.” That’s what readers want—and what you can deliver.
Nancy Kress‘ latest book is Probability Moon, which shows us one future human society and two alien ones.