“Show, don’t tell” is often referred to as the golden rule of writing fiction and is arguably one of the most important rules for all new writers to learn and follow. Simply put, “show, don’t tell” means to allow the reader to experience the story through the character’s actions, dialogue, facial expressions, or through specific details rather than tell the reader what to believe.
Telling—He was really tired.
Showing—He slouched in the recliner, eyes struggling to stay open, his hand gradually losing its grip on the can of Miller Light.
Showing will pull readers into the scene you've created so they can draw their own inferences, whereas telling imparts information and leaves no room for readers to deduce anything. A successful “show, don’t tell” will make readers feel like they are inside the character’s head and will know from that perspective what’s going on.
Telling is usually boring and tends to slow the narrative down, causing readers to skip over parts or all of it. Extreme telling is a form of talking down to readers, not letting them think for themselves.
I love this advice from author/agent Evan Marshall.
Don’t just write: The subway station was shabby. Write: Near the edge of the platform, a man with knotted hair held out a Dixie cup to no one in particular, calling, “Spare some change? Spare some change?” Swirls of iridescent orange graffiti covered the Canal Street sign. The whole place smelled of urine and potato chips.
And this by author/playwright Anton Chekhov.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Here are some more examples of “telling” versus “showing.”
Telling—She was surprised at his remark.
Showing—She jumped up from the chair, shrieking, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
Telling—He was musically talented.
Showing—He played first violin for the Chicago Symphony and strummed a mean banjo as well.
Telling—She felt as though she looked really nice in the outfit she had chosen.
Showing—Seeing her reflection in the mirror made her smile.
Surprisingly, a “showing” sentence isn’t necessarily longer than a “telling” one.
Flat: She moved to within a few inches of his face. When they kissed, she felt a tingle go down her spine.
Better: Sheleaned in for the kiss. His lips felt warm, soft, and pulsating.
To liven up a flat “telling” sentence, try incorporating one or more of the five senses into it—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.
Flat: He couldn’t tolerate the smell in the bedroom.
Better: The foul, dead odor coming from the bedroom caused him to gag.
Flat: He sweated.
Better: Beads of sweat trickled down his face, onto his lips, and into his mouth with a salty rinse.
Never make the mistake of both telling and showing.
She was surprised to see him there. "What is he doing here?" she shouted.
If you’re using too many of certain words—is, was, were, has, made, saw, thought, and felt—you might be telling (versus showing) more than you should, as in these examples.
Telling: Gerard is a talented violinist.
Showing: The audience sat silently as they listened to Gerard play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, his fingers caressing the melody as if having a life of their own.
Telling: The night was cold as Trudy began the journey from her stalled car to the nearest house.
Showing: Trudy slid out of her car and trudged through the foot-deep snow looking for a house, the frosty night air cutting into her lungs.
Telling: Harriet was impressed by the buffet table.
Showing: Harriet made a slow, disbelieving shake of her head as she moved closer to the extravagant buffet table, momentarily forgetting the reason she was in attendance at the event. Giddiness overwhelmed her—she couldn’t wait to share the experience with her friends.
Telling: He had bad news to tell his workers that was going to result in layoffs.
Showing: The news he was about to tell his workers about the first round of layoffs would undoubtedly cause stress among them, even for those who would not be directly affected, as no worker could relax knowing the next round might include them.
It helps to look for facts in your manuscript and replace them with action where appropriate.
Telling: During the Great Depression, unemployment rose to 25 percent, housing prices plummeted 30 percent, $30 billion was lost on Wall Street, 750,000 farms were lost through sheriff sales or bankruptcy, 1.5 million men abandoned their families, and half the banks failed.
Showing: During the Great Depression, many people became homeless due to job loss. Unable to support themselves, people were forced to move in with family members, neighbors, and even total strangers. Children suffered from the long-term effects of poor diet and lack of medical care. Suicide rates surged, leaving families in even more desperate situations. With such widespread despair spreading across the country, soon there was no money to buy the farmer’s products, and they fell even further behind the rest of the country when desperate banks called in their loans, and farmers had no money to pay them.
Long descriptive passages where there’s no action or dialogue may be an indication of too much telling. Try replacing them with scenes that depict the same idea.
Unnecessary description: They rode up the long escalator to the second floor of the mall, hurrying past the food court and its tempting array of fast food odors wafting through the air, to the mobile phone store where Randy and Todd waited for them.
Better: They rode up the escalator to the mobile phone store where Randy and Todd waited for them.
While showing is usually a good thing, it also has some pitfalls. Showing can be confusing because it is less precise than telling. When you show someone who is tired, for example, by having the character close his eyes, slouch in a chair, and groan, the reader may not know whether the character is exhausted, angry, ill, or irritated. Another pitfall is that showing might result in a longer narrative that some readers may not like.
The “show, don’t tell” concept is an effective one, but it is not a blanket rule to be used in every sentence, paragraph, and scene. Use it wisely.