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Show don’t tell! We’ve all heard this advice, but what does it mean? Unfortunately, the familiar refrain is itself ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, and the reality is that sometimes it is best to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. In this post, I will attempt to clarify what your editor means when she says to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell’, and I will offer some guidance about when you should ‘show’ something to your audience, and when you should ‘tell’ it.
Defining the Terms
In a nutshell, ‘showing’ something to your audience means that it occurs on stage and is described in concrete terms. ‘Telling’, on the other hand, occurs off stage and is described in abstract terms.
On Stage versus Off Stage
If you picture your story happening in your mind like a movie or play, anything that actually happens ‘on stage’ is being ‘shown’ to the reader. Conversely, anything that does not take place on stage, but which the narrator or a character tells us about is being ‘told’ to the reader. Since that was me ‘telling’ you the difference, let me show you:
“You look… comfy,” my best friend said as she gave my sweats and t-shirt a once over.
“Yeah, “ I replied sheepishly. “I got dressed in a hurry this morning.”
Shoot! I thought frantically, nearly tripping over a chair in the mad dash to my room. How did it get so late? Yanking open the top drawer, I grabbed the first things my hands touched, a pair of gray sweatpants, and roughly shoved my legs into the opening. I ripped open another drawer and snagged a faded band tee before pulling it on and racing for the front door where my shoes waited, not even bothering to close the drawers before leaving.
In the first example, the author ‘tells’ the reader through dialogue that she got dressed in a hurry. The actual getting dressed part is not shown in the story and does not happen ‘on stage’, it is simply revealed to the reader. In the second example, the author ‘shows’ the reader through narration that she got dressed in a hurry. She gets dressed in the scene, and the reader can actually ‘see’ it happening.
Abstract versus Concrete
When you ‘tell’ readers something in vague, abstract terms, they are left to fill in the blanks. Conversely, if you build out a description with concrete details, you paint a clearer mental picture for your reader.
Realizing how late it was, I dressed in a hurry.
Shoot! I thought frantically, nearly tripping over a chair in the mad dash to my room. How did it get so late? Yanking open the top drawer, I grabbed the first things my hands touched, a pair of gray sweatpants, and roughly shoved my legs into the opening. I ripped open another drawer and snagged out the faded band tee on top before pulling it on and racing for the front door where my shoes waited, not even bothering to close the drawers before leaving.
In the abstract example, the lack of concrete details prevents the reader from painting a clear mental picture. Typically, when you use adjectives or adverbs, you are ‘telling’ abstractly rather than ‘showing’ concretely.
Does this mean that you need to ‘show’ your readers every single thing? No! In fact, one of the most common comments I put on manuscripts I am editing is “This does not need to be shown; simply include a line telling the reader it happened.” On the flip side, I also frequently highlight passages and add the note, “Show don’t tell!”. So how do you know which to do? In a nutshell, if a scene is going to progress the plot, build tension, or develop a character, then you need to show it. If the scene is advancing the timeline but nothing else, then you should tell it.
Establishing a Character Trait
What about our example of the character getting dressed? Should this be off stage, on stage but abstract, or concretely shown on stage? That depends on the bigger picture. If you are trying to build characterization, such as establishing that your character is distracted, lost in thought, and it is impacting her life, or that she is generally irresponsible or chronically late, then show, don’t tell—the first time.
Only the first time, you ask? But how can I establish a pattern of behavior? One time is an incident, afterall, not a character trait. All true, but one frantic getting-dressed scene is enough. Your reader does not want to read the same scene over and over. If you want to establish it as a pattern of behavior, then use the other two techniques to ‘tell’ the reader that it is still happening regularly without boring your reader by ‘showing’ the same scene over and over.
Introducing the character trait:
Shoot! I thought frantically, nearly tripping over a chair in the mad dash to my room. How did it get so late? Yanking open the top drawer, I grabbed the first things my hands touched, a pair of gray sweatpants, and roughly shoved my legs into the opening. I ripped open another drawer and snagged out the faded band tee on top before pulling it on and racing for the front door, where my shoes waited, not even bothering to close the drawers before leaving.
Second time it happens:
Realizing how late it was, I dressed in a hurry.
Third time it happens:
“You look… comfy,” my best friend said as she gave my sweats and t-shirt a once over.
“Yeah, “ I replied sheepishly. “I didn’t really have time to plan an outfit this morning.”
Judicious use of both showing and telling allows you to paint that vivid mental picture for your reader the first time, and then reinforce the trait throughout the story without boring your reader with repetitive scenes.
Travel Scenes: Show or Tell?
One of the most common places I see authors ‘showing’ when they should ‘tell’ is travel scenes. I have read entire chapters (once even an entire Act) where nothing happens except the characters traveling from one place to another. The author ‘shows’ the characters get on a plane, take their seats, get comfy, pull out their books and phones, look out the windows, land, gather their belongings and deplane. I always have to find a nice way to tell the author that no one cares—these scenes are boring! So many authors mistakenly believe that moving their characters in time and space progresses the plot—it doesn’t! The plot is progressed when we learn more about the characters and they take action that impacts the outcome of the story. The decision to get on the plane and take the trip progresses the plot, but the actual travel does not unless something significant is going to happen during the plane ride.
Does this mean you should never show your characters traveling? No! Just make sure that if you do, it is progressing your plot. Here are some examples of authors showing travel scenes in an engaging, plot-productive way.
In Albany Walker’s Havenfall Harbor Book One, the female main character has a panic attack during the flight because she is terrified of plane rides. In this case, showing the plane ride serves the purpose of character development by letting the reader know about her phobia, as well as showing how the other characters react to the situation.
In Laylah Roberts’ Ruled by her Daddies, the flight attendant, who is working on a private jet and knows the male characters well, is flirting heavily with the heroine’s boyfriend. This is important in establishing her as a rival to the heroine, especially because it provides important set up when the flight attendant later stalks and attacks the heroine after realizing that the love interest will not choose her. Once again, showing the plane ride is important, not because travel took place, but rather because something significant occurred during the travel.
Another effective technique frequently used by authors is for the POV character to spend time introspectively working through something during travel, such as a car ride. E.L. James does this a lot in her Fifty Shades series. Any time Ana and Christian are in a car together, Ana spends the whole trip micro analyzing his every word and expression, and the state of their relationship.
Many authors do something similar. A character gets in the car, gets lost in thought, often debating a crisis question and its stakes, or attempting to connect pieces of a puzzle. Whatever the specifics, it is always something that will create tension, develop the character, or progress the plot. The internal deliberation is ended when the character arrives.
If nothing interesting is going to happen, then do not show the travel scene. One of my favorite indie authors, Erica Woods, had a travel scene in her new book, Assembly. In the scene, the characters all load up into the car, stressed and tense about the journey and task ahead, and then the POV character promptly falls asleep, not waking until they arrive. In this way Erica was able to let the readers know that they were traveling by car and how the characters felt about the situation without boring the readers with a play-by-play of the actual car ride.
Erica understood that the decision to travel and the feelings about that decision were what was important to the plot. Because the characters’ decision was to drive in the car to their destination, and nothing happened during their drive to affect that decision, the car ride itself was not relevant to the plot, and was therefore not shown. Instead, the reader is told that it happened when the POV character wakes up and sees that they have arrived.
This is another one we see a ton. I imagine authors want the reader to know how well thought out the characters’ plans are, but the reality is that watching characters stand around and talk about their plans is boring. It is much more interesting to watch the characters carry out those plans; remember one of the cardinal rules of writing: Don’t show your reader the same thing twice! Your audience definitely does not want to read about your characters giving a detailed description of their plans, followed by you describing how your characters execute those exact same plans.
So, should you ever show characters discussing plans? Of course! There are a couple of situations in which showing the characters discussing their plans adds value to the story. To give an example that includes a few reasons for showing plans being discussed, I’m going to turn back to Erica Woods in Assembly (can you tell I read this recently?)
“Which of you will take her?” Ash asked, tearing me away from dark thoughts and bringing me back to the present.
“Zakh,” Blake said. “If she is seen with me, they will know how important she is to you. But since Zakh isn’t an alpha, they might underestimate her value.”
I squashed a snarl and forced bland thoughts before I challenged the wolf who would be spending too much time with my female in the coming days. Every cell in my body longed to hunt. Fangs lengthened as I imagined tearing out a throat or two, bathing in the blood of all the males who would come sniffing around our little female.
Was no doubt in my mind they’d want her. All the wolves who saw her would be enthralled by her quiet beauty; the kindness shining in her wide, trusting eyes; by the naked vulnerability she couldn’t hide even when her core of strength awoke and tried to protect her.
Would they prey on her kindness? Offer smiles to her face and claws to her back?
“Won’t work,” I snarled, an answer to Blake and a promise to myself. “They’ll see right through it.” No one who laid eyes on Hope would fail to see her intrinsic value.
A slow smile captured Blake’s face.
Considered punching it off.
“Not everyone sees her as you do, mon amie,” the too-pretty male drawled.
Zakh’s lip twitched. “I’ll protect girl,” he said in a thick accent.
Considered punching the Russian bastard too. Zakh could speak perfect English, stilted and stiff, but perfect. That he didn’t now could only mean the moon still held him in her thrall.
Made him dangerous.
My lungs expanded, ready to expel a great roar of challenge, but then I caught a glimpse of my female and the sound died in my throat.
Why is it okay for Erica to have included this planning scene? A few reasons; she was able to develop the POV character when she showed his internal struggle with the plans being laid out. Character development is generally a valid reason to “show” a scene. Also, we learn some world building when it is explained that others will measure Hope’s value to her pack based on whose team they arrange for her to be on. Finally, it lays the groundwork for a progressive complication later on in the story when teams are chosen and Hope ends up getting picked by an alpha who is not an ally of her pack. Because things are not going to go according to plan, the reader does not receive repeated information later on.
This one is HUGE! Nothing kills narrative flow like ‘telling’ readers how someone is feeling (or not touching on emotions at all) during what should be a particularly high-emotion scene. Let’s look at that last scene from Assembly again.
I didn’t like the idea of Hope around all those strange males.
“I squashed a snarl and forced bland thoughts before I challenged the wolf who would be spending too much time with my female in the coming days. Every cell in my body longed to hunt. Fangs lengthened as I imagined tearing out a throat or two, bathing in the blood of all the males who would come sniffing around our little female.”
‘Showing’ conveys the character’s feelings during this high-emotion scene much more effectively than simply ‘telling’. Of course, not every scene is high emotion, and it can be perfectly acceptable to ‘tell’ your reader the character’s emotional state at times, but it will always be a less immersive experience.
What do you think?
These are the problem areas I see most often in manuscripts, as well as the techniques I suggest for correction. What about you? What areas do you notice, in your writing or others, where the author should show instead of tell, or tell instead of show? Drop your feedback in the comments below!