Yes, I know. This old chestnut again. You’ve heard it all before, of course. Every tutor on every writing course, every online guru, every self-help book you’ve ever put back on the shelf. “Show don’t tell!” they all shout.
But why is showing (usually) better than telling?
Well, like most things in art, it all boils down to emotions and feelings. Let’s take a look at how “showing” relates to your characters and their emotions — because that’s at the core of all good writing. In general, fiction seeks to provoke an emotional response in the reader. And this is most readily achieved by showing an emotional reaction in your characters. Why is that?
More than a feeling
Jack stormed out and Jill was left alone in the room. She felt angry. Angry and frustrated.
This “tells” us all we need to know — Jill’s angry and frustrated. At a very basic level, it provides the only information we need to move the story forwards. But is it involving? Nope. Do we feel engaged with Jill and her current emotional state? Not on your life. Telling is reportage; it states the facts and moves on.
Now consider this:
Jack stormed out and Jill was left alone in the room. “Dammit, Jack!” she shouted at the door and flung his gift at the space he’d just occupied. Tears sprang suddenly to her eyes and though she’d never felt less like crying in her life, she couldn’t stop them. “You won’t get away with this,” she said and stalked towards the door.
Same event but different, right? Now we’re showing Jill’s anger and frustration, through her actions (throwing the gift), her physical responses (tears, stalking across the room) and even dialogue. Suddenly we’re right in Jill’s head with her. We’re more involved. Engaged.
And that’s because we’re vicariously sharing her emotional reaction. We’ve been provoked into an emotional response.
Get inside your characters’ heads
There’s a deeper reason for that extra engagement. When you render “she was angry” as actions, thoughts, and dialogue, you’re forced to get right inside the character to discover what exactly has made her feel that way; you need to know her from the inside to know how she’s going to react. So you flesh her out as you invent the details of her emotional state . . . which is what the reader is doing all the time.
Readers feed on the details you give them, but they also relish the chance to fill in some of those details themselves. While you’re creating Jill’s emotional state, the reader is busily creating her attitudes and backstory, based on what you’ve shown them. A lot has been said and written about “the active reader” but this reader/writer collaboration really is the key to engagement. And most of the time, readers aren’t even aware they’re doing it. It’s a kind of psychic menage a trois between reader, writer, and character. Just don’t tell your significant other.
However, when someone tells you that you must only show and never tell, show them the pointy end of a sharp stick and jab them efficiently in the buttocks with it. There are times when telling is acceptable and even preferred. Not everything needs the detail we’ve seen in Jill’s emotional response above. For example, if this argument with Jack had been a relatively inconsequential affair that happened in the past, it would be perfectly fine to simply say, “Jill had been angry and frustrated that day.” (Though it should have some bearing on the plot, otherwise there’s no need to mention it at all.)
Indeed, we can mix and match showing and telling in such circumstances. We might end up with something like this:
Jill had been angry and frustrated that day. But it had been nothing compared to how she felt now. She slammed the cupboard door so hard that the wood split, which just made her feel worse; it was as if even the house was conspiring against her. “Enough already!” she cried and felt tears upon her face.
We’ve got telling here (“angry and frustrated”, “made her feel worse”) and showing (slamming doors, crazy paranoid thoughts, dialogue, etc.) and it all comes together to create a whole picture. The telling sets up the showing, prefacing the detail. Telling isn’t all bad.
Avoid the abstract
But the bottom line is that telling runs the risk of descending into abstraction, which distances and disengages the reader. In commercial fiction, that’s a crime second only to dream sequences (or, even worse, the dreaded “it was all a dream” ending). Abstract emotions — anger, frustration, love, hate — are so ephemeral and hard to pin down that we’re often tempted to simply avoid trying to coax them out and examine them properly. And so we say “Jill was angry” because it’s too difficult to go any deeper. But readers will notice, and they won’t love you — or your characters — for it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: readers like to read about people. They want to see the world through someone else’s eyes and feel it through someone else’s feelings. “Jill was angry” just doesn’t cut it. Readers think it’s lazy. And it is. Keep your readers awake by showing it all to them and making them feel it.
When you’re editing your own writing, it can sometimes be difficult to spot telling, simply because you know what you meant to say and that’s what you see. But there are some giveaways that should make you prick up your metaphorical ears and reconsider how you’ve presented a scene:
- Bald statements of fact — she was angry; he was happy that she’d noticed his new hat; she didn’t like the taste of the wine.
- Use of the verb “to feel”, which often prefaces a “telling” adverb or adjective — she felt angry; he was feeling happy; she felt a whole range of emotions.
- Telling following a passage of showing; usually, this is simply down to a lack of confidence in your own writing, and we’re all sometimes guilty of that particular offence — she threw his gift back at him, full of anger now; he grinned broadly at her, happy she’d noticed his new hat; she forced the wine down but she didn’t like the taste. (In each of these, the second clause of each sentence could be safely deleted.)
- Overuse of adverbs — she looked at him angrily; he wore his new hat happily; she sipped the wine reluctantly. (A stronger verb usually means we can dispense with the adverbs: she glared at him; he paraded in his new hat; she grimaced as she swallowed the wine.)
We could spend the rest of today (and tomorrow) talking about this, but you’ve probably got better things to do, so let me help you with your coat. We’ll return to this subject in upcoming articles, when we’ll talk about the effects of showing and telling on exposition, dialogue, and descriptive prose. But before you go, let me tell you one thing:
Show your emotions proudly . . . and tell me when you do.