Show, don’t tell.

Something we hear a lot about in writing is to ‘show, don’t tell.’

Showing allows us to paint a scene so that the reader experiences it as a character (usually the protagonist) does.  It helps create the world of the story and is much more atmospheric than simply stating what’s going on, i.e. effectively talking at the reader.

Consider for example the following sentence:

    Bob was angry at Gloria.

Now you might question what’s wrong with that sentence.  It tells us exactly how Bob’s feeling.  He’s angry.  At Gloria.  Nice and simple.  But that’s also a big part of the point.  It tells us.  It doesn’t create mood or setting or really help us understand an angry Bob or really contextualise the relationship he has with Gloria at this point (other than to establish the angry bit).  Think about other ways to communicate Bob’s anger, e.g.

    Bob clenched his fists and glowered at Gloria.

That’s the most basic example, but it creates an image of Bob.  We start to visualise him.  We can see his reaction in anger.  The reaction also implies potentially other consequences, e.g. with Bob clenching his fists, will he strike Gloria?  Is he trying to refrain from striking Gloria?  Already this very simple scene – five words when we tell it, eight words when we show it – has taken on a whole new meaning.

Another issue that occurs with telling is exposition.  E.g.

    Bob had been a computer programmer for five years.  He didn’t like it, but it was a living.

Here, we’re being told Bob’s circumstances.  Some stories have reams of exposition where it’s really just the author telling the reader the backstory to set up the rest of the narrative.  Be on the lookout for this.  Lots of authors use it in digressions, sometimes to the point that you forget where the story was by the time you return to it.

Showing this can be difficult, and we can’t always do it exactly in the same place as the source material. Sometimes, it requires taking this information and finding another opportunity to seed it into the story.  For example, Bob might be having a conversation with Gloria earlier, e.g.

    ‘So what do you for a living?’
    ‘Computer programmer.’
    ‘Yeah?  That sounds interesting.’
    ‘It’s not.  Need to find something else.  After five years, enough is enough.’

Again, this is the most basic example, but we’ve found a new way to relay this information and now learn it as one of the other characters learns it.  It’s no longer exposition but discovery. More than that, it creates mood and shows us a bit about Bob. From this self-deprecating answer, Bob seems to be a bit sullen. We didn’t get that when we just told the reader this information.

Another example:

    Bob was heartbroken when Gloria left him.

How else could we convey this information?  Think about it for a moment.  Here’s just a few alternatives off the top of my head:

  • in a conversation with another character
  • he might ring her, leave a message on her voicemail
  • he might stare mutely at a picture of her.

The list could go on.  And on.

When you write, think about how you relay information.  Sometimes, telling is unavoidable.  But try to minimize it when possible.  It not only makes for more effective, evocative storytelling, but will challenge you to look at the structure of your story in a new light, and reconsider how it unfolds, opening your mind (and imagination) to new possibilities.