“Show, don’t tell.” It’s probably the most repeated advice a writer hears. In fact, it’s so widely spread that we, as writers, sometimes struggle to understand that telling, too, has a place in great writing. How do you tell when to show and when to tell? What is the balance? That’s today’s topic.
Reporting vs. Experiencing:
One of the major ways to tell whether you’re showing or telling is in the timing. Active, engaging scenes happen in real time (even when writing in the past tense, “she said” instead of “she says”). If your reader is experiencing the scene and watching it unfold, you’re in “show” mode. If, instead, you are reporting what happened prior to the scene, you’re “telling.” That doesn’t necessarily mean a flashback is telling, as well-written flashbacks also unfold before the reader in a “real time” fashion. But if you are describing events after the fact, regardless of it’s timeline in the actual story, you’re in “tell” mode.
Scenes vs. Narration:
Scenes are all about action and dialogue and the movement of characters through your story. They are understandably harder to write than narration. We are conditioned in our day-to-day activities to narrate, after all. But it makes for boring novels. Readers don’t want to read page after page of dry exposition, they want to see the characters in action. That’s how they come to an understanding of your character’s personality, goals, flaws, and lives.
So, you must write not to tell your audience about everything secondhand, but instead to drop them into the story so they can experience it. Rely on dialogue and actions, set it in a concrete place that has substance. Describe to engage your reader’s imagination (but not so much that it stifles the theater of their mind) and allow them to see the scenes unravel before them.
The goal is to write in such a way that your audience becomes unaware of your existence. We want them to be so involved in your characters that they forget they are reading the words altogether. And you can’t do that by telling them what happened. That can only be accomplished by engaging their emotions, and you do that by showing them.
But be careful to not cut out all of your narration. By doing so, you risk creating too uniform a read. The major bonus of narrative exposition is in it’s ability to slow things down for your reader and allow them to catch their breath. Varying the pace of your novel, you create a more expansive feel and allow what would have been a quick scene to feel more like several hours as opposed to several minutes.
Narration also allows for smoother transitions and less repetition. For novels which expand over months and years, for example, or for characters who take the same actions like run in marathons, narrative exposition can be used to create the feeling of it occurring without drafting scenes which would bore your readers. (“Days grew to weeks and to years, and the unfamiliar became familiar” as opposed to scene upon scene of the transition to familiarization, or “after the first race, they all seemed the same, in a way. Losses, or wins, it didn’t matter” as opposed to drawing out every race.)
Emotions vs. Feelings:
On a smaller scale, there can be instances of showing and telling within your scenes and narration as well. The best tip for these is to “show emotion, tell feeling.”
We want our readers to relate to our characters. The connection is built upon an understanding of our character’s emotions. But telling our audience what the character is feeling detracts from forming that connection–our readers must experience the range of emotions with them and grasp not only why they feel how they do by how. Far more powerful to show your reader the prick of pain in your character’s chest and the struggle of fighting back stinging tears than to simply say your character is sad.
However, some things we can assume our readers understand. Being tired is something we all experience relatively the same. Our arms feel leaden, or feet drag, our eyelids become weighted. And all of that description is fine, but your reader knows what it’s like to be exhausted, so tell them she’s tired and move on to how it impacts what she’s doing.
The World and Objects:
You don’t want your entire novel to be nothing but purple prose, so don’t shy away from simply telling your reader some facts so that you can move on to what’s important, but also be aware that it’s possible to show without delving into paragraphs about your subject. Create a deep world your reader can immerse themselves in.
Your character may drive an old beater. But how much more powerful is it for your reader to come to the understanding of how much of a beater it is on their own. Show them the rust that drifts in the breeze from the bottom of the door when they open it, let them see the character need to cross the wires to get the headlights to work.
Similarly, your setting should be seen and not told. Don’t tell your reader the sun is beating down, show them the hazy lines of heat above the asphalt.
“Show, don’t tell” is excellent advise, but writers must strike a balance between showing and (sparingly) telling to get the most out of their writing. Show emotions and settings and write in scenes, but use telling to smooth out transitions, create a crisper and more cohesive timeline, and describe feelings.
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