When I was home in California last Christmas, I was clearing out a box of my things at my parents’ house. As a writer, sometimes it’s fun to look back at your earliest work and see how far you’ve come. I got to go over some of my earliest hits, like the very first short story I ever wrote: a ten page fantasy from fourth grade about the world’s richest rabbit. I also came upon my first manuscript ever: the historical novel I’d penned in high school. Reading through that was tragic.
It was very tough reading through my early works because I noticed I did a lot of showing, rather than telling. As you foray deeper into the world of writing, you’ll probably come upon this critique more and more from professors, peers, or just other writers in general.
So, what does that mean exactly?
If you struggle to differentiate between showing versus telling, don’t worry because you aren’t alone. Plenty of writers struggle with it. It all refers to the actions in your story. When you “tell,” you’re basically just informing the reader of what is going on rather than letting them deduce it for themselves. In other words, you’re just supplying them the information by stating it. Think of it as being the Captain Obvious of your own story. Examples of this would be telling the reader that the character is “upset,” “hungry,” or “cold.”
Instead, showing is basically painting a word picture for the reader to see in their mind’s eye. Rather than tell the reader the character is “angry,” “hungry,” or “cold,” you describe it to them with action. So your character can “slam a door so hard a picture falls off the wall,” or they can “take a sip of water to try and quell the feeling of acid burning in their stomach,” or they can “reach for an extra blanket.”
Instead of telling your reader what is going on, try to make them an interactive part of the experience – make them be able to close their eyes and see it as if they’re reliving a memory. I mean, we’re all readers ourselves so we know there is nothing better than being a reader with an active role in the narrative.
If you need more concrete examples, I’ve written some below:
Tell: When she hugged him, she could tell he’d been smoking.
Show: As he wrapped his arms around her, the faint waft of stale tobacco hit her nose.
Tell: Emily was blind.
Show: Emily’s white cane struck the side of the curb.
Tell: It was late fall.
Show: The orange leaves crunched beneath our feet.
Tell: The man was a plumber and he asked where the kitchen was.
Show: His coveralls were stained with white paint on the left leg. Wrenches of various sizes hung down from the leather belt around his waist. “Point me towards the leak,” he said.
Tell: The date was going well and Tom let his food go cold listening to Lisa’s stories.
Show: Tom’s baked potato had lost its halo of steam as he smiled and asked, “Please tell me the end of that German hostel story.”
Now, you may be wondering if telling is ever acceptable? And yes, it is. However, keep in mind that telling is just summary narrative. It doesn’t add any value to your plot/conflict/character/tension arc, but it can be used when you have to include the mundane but necessary information. In short, you want to do a majority of showing, but sometimes you have to tell some of the smaller, less important things. It’s a writing yin and yang – showing and telling both balance each other out. You just need to figure out the balance that works for the story.