Every craft has jargon, this nomenclature of words that are like a secret code to those in the know and completely baffling to those on the outside or those just breaking into the ‘group.’ (Religion is the worst for this, right up there with science and politics.) And the one I find that trips up the budding writer the most is “Show, don’t tell.” They can be teenagers or seventy years old and when you say ‘show, don’t tell’ to them they’ll still look blankly at you. Whether or not they ask what you mean depends on the person. (There is nothing worse than saying show don’t tell to a person who isn’t aware what it means and then they don’t ask questions!)
There is a major difference between showing something and telling something and nine times out of ten the beginning writer will tell something rather than show it. (The other tenth of a time is when a beginning writer is in love with what we call ‘purple prose’ and uses a lot of adjectives and nouns that don’t even really have meaning to what they’re using them for. It’s like they’ve vomited up a thesaurus. It’d be more amusing if I meant a dinosaur.) While there is something to be said about keeping prose simple, telling is like having a story that is all bones without any meat to it. It’s dry and boring. There is nothing for the reader to sink their teeth into and start living and feeling the story with the character(s).
Summarization vs. Description
Telling is like the reader has picked up the local newspaper that is ‘just the facts’ with some idle speculation sprinkled into it. When you take an entire story or a series of scenes and condense it down to a paragraph, that’s telling. You’ve just summarized all the good or interesting bits of your story. Summarization is saved for the backs of books and for things that aren’t important. Telling is boring, yawn worthy and I shut the book and go find something else to do.
Showing something involves describing things and going through it step by step and getting involved into the character’s mind and emotions. When a reader is shown something, they are sitting in the back of the character’s mind and feeling like they’re in that character’s body and life! Showing is exciting and dynamic and keeps me glued to the page.
In writing there has to be a proper balance between showing and telling. Too much showing and the story drags as it gets bogged down in all the details. Too much telling, the story falls flat and there is nothing to hold the reader to the page.
Telling is like listening to a ‘Good Ole Boy’ tell a story. “I was doing this, see, when this happened, see, and then I did that!” And you’re supposed to laugh and slap his back and tell him what a good storyteller he is. Unless it’s a funny play on words or something, the good ole boy always forgets to add any sort of description into his story whatsoever. Sure, they’re telling a story. They’re telling a story by telling it rather than showing it. They’ve summarized all the good bits. In fact, most the time they’ve summarized the entire story!
When it comes to writing a story, description is the writer’s friend. So, when the good ole boy says he was off hunting in a forest, I want to interrupt and go “What kind of forest?” If he’s in an evergreen forest that’s different than a deciduous forest, which is different from a rainforest! Old forests are different than young forests. And each of these forests are going to look and sound different depending on the time of year. They’re going to smell different too! So, if you’re going to tell me you’re in a forest, you need to describe to me the type of forest you’re in!
This applies for settings, characters and objects. If there is a noun in your story and you insist that said noun is important to the story, then by golly, you better describe said noun! That’s what adjectives were invented for! Describing a guy as handsome isn’t really helpful. Everyone’s standards of handsome are different. The same goes for a pretty woman. Of course, anyone can imagine a more handsome or prettier person than any writer can describe. But the writer has to give them the key features for them to create their mental image of the character upon.
Then comes the next big question, what are people doing? How are they standing? Are they fiddling with anything? What are their facial expressions? Do they sweat? Do their hands shake? People’s actions betray their character. What goes on the outside of a person, reflects what is going on the inside. Character actions invite reactions. Suddenly the characters are involved with each other and aren’t just standing there with their hands at their sides with blank looks on their faces. Instead, we are in a play, where Lumiere is hamming it up on corner of the stage while Cogsworth hides his eyes with his hands. Next, there shall be a duel! Candlesticks versus clock hands! Allez! Fence!
Sorry, got caught up there for a moment.
Reporting vs. Opinion
Often a beginning writer writes like he’s giving a statement to the police. This happened. Then this happened and then this happened. The police don’t care about what he thought about the incident. They don’t care about his opinion or what he thinks happened. They want just the facts. What happened? When did you see it happen? Can you describe the victim and the perp, please?
In a book, that’s not what the reader pays for. They want to know what happens. They want to know when it happens. And then they want to know what the character thinks about it! What are the characters opinions? Maybe the character didn’t see things correctly! How does the character feel about what happened? How do they react to it! What do they do? And suddenly, we’ve gone full circle here!
Dry Facts vs. Explanations/Compare and Contrast
67% percent of statistics are made up on the spot. (That was made up.) However, in the real world there are certain absolute facts. Gravity tends to be an absolute. Sports players have metrics by which they define their lives and careers. Any type of vehicle has a certain specifications to meet its class. So, the beginning writer who wants to show off their smarts will no doubt put some sort of statistic in their story, from how fast they can run down a field, to the engine power of a vehicle to the price of tea in China and how tall they are. A lot of times, the reader really wants to know what the price of tea in China has to do with anything. And the writer, who is so steeped in these statistics and facts, doesn’t understand that no one else really knows what that means. So they don’t ever explain. They just state the fact and move on.
Well, it’s nice that you told us this. Now, perhaps you can show us what that means. Now, there are a few ways to go about it. They can actually make it important to the story and show the character doing that thing that they made the statistic about. They can be in a race or go toe to toe with a bully or compare and contrast the price of tea in China to the price of tea in India and Britain as they try to order tea in bulk for their new tea shop. (I’m reaching. I know.) Or, they could just out and out explain the fact for the ignorant. This is called exposition. This also usually involves some compare and contrast as they compare to famous people or use a metaphor with something people are familiar with. Exposition can be important to understand what exactly is going on in the story and how this statistic or fact is important to the story.
Now, if the fact or the statistic isn’t really important as it never gets shown in the story in any way, then you might as well axe that fact or statistic until it is important.
Dialogue, Expositional vs. Action
Sometimes, there just isn’t enough time in the story to show everything. Explaining things is the way the writer cheats to have the story make sense. And to make it more engaging, often they put it into dialogue. Expositional dialogue is often a lot like that ‘good old boy’ telling his stories. It can be the cap of a scene, where the character tells another character what is going on somewhere else, where he can’t possibly be. Expositional dialogue is telling the reader something. “You mad!” “Of course I’m mad!”
This is opposed to action dialogue. Action dialogue moves the story forward in such a way that the reader isn’t being told what is going on. They’re seeing it. Instead of the character saying he’s mad, he’s swearing a blue streak and issuing dire threats about what he’s going to do if he ever gets his hands on the guy who swindled him. Active dialogue mimics dialogue in everyday life, full of jokes, non sequiturs and random bodily noises. Paying attention to how people talk in real life can help create active dialogue in your stories.
Character traits: Showing vs. Telling
Then there is the last and sometimes hardest aspect of showing versus telling, character traits. It is one thing to say that the character is smart, cool headed, good in a fight etc, etc. It is another thing to put the characters in situations where they will be able to be smart, cool headed or show off those fighting skills you claim they have. A lot of writers fall into the trap of constantly telling character traits, emotions, skills, interests, hobbies and then never showing the character actually doing these things. Sometimes it might be the difference between a plot focused story and a character focused story. In a plot focused story the writer is so focused on the action and the conflict, that they forget to take pauses and let the character and reader rest. So many times, they revert to telling us that their characters are such and such or do such and such, but then never take the words or pages to have the characters be in situations where those things are important and they have a chance to use their skills.
Showing and telling is a delicate balance. Both techniques can be needed to tell an effective story. Things have to be explained. Sometimes it’s good to both tell an emotion and show an emotion. There are places where summarizing things are appropriate. It takes practice and experience to know when to show (most of the time) and when to tell (very little of the time.) Telling is a lot easier than showing. In telling, there is a lot less of imagination being employed on the writer’s part and a whole lot of imagination having to be used on the reader’s part to enjoy the story.
When writing a story, it is good to indulge in some description, get the characters to voice their thoughts and opinions and put them in situations where their skills can shine. Or, if they aren’t good at those skills, fail miserably. Challenging the character creates conflict. If the character has conflict they have a choice to take action. Action moves the story! A moving story keeps the reader interested and their eyes glued to the page!