First of all, telling is considered bad. Why? Because it packs less punch and ultimately doesn’t pull a reader in.
For example, if someone tells me their finger really hurts, I don’t necessarily believe them. I probably won’t even care that much because we’re all used to hearing complaints, and so whining carries no weight anymore. But if you show me your finger’s oozing gash and your wincing expression, I know it hurts—and suddenly I care.
I think of showing as happening on multiple scales—macro, micro—and in various storytelling aspects—plot, character, setting, etc. Let’s break this down.
Macro-showing involves looking at the story with as much distance as possible. In other words, we would look at the whole 3-act structure (so plot), the entire character arc, the complete world-building (setting), etc.
In Star Wars: the Empire Strikes Back, no one has to tell me that after Luke learns Darth Vader is his father, things will never be the same again. The plot has just majorly shifted, and based on the story so far, I know what a big deal this is—I’ve been shown why this matters and why it will change the course of events.
For Luke in Star Wars: A New Hope, we see the shift in his character as he goes from an adventure-seeking farm boy to a Force-fueled, Rebel soldier. No one has to tell me he has transformed because I’ve seen the progression—and IF a character were to blatantly tell me “Boy, ol’ Luke sure has grown up”, I wouldn’t find it weird. I would know it’s true, and such a telling statement would even be okay. (See more on when to use telling below.)
This is the standard “show” we think of—the tiny details that draw a scene for us. This is when we feel the water clinging to us and the mosquito’s bite; when we hear the cicadas and distant thunder; and when we see the orange sky and low clouds. We picture the scene without being told, “It was a hot summer evening.”
But it’s more than setting—we have to show our plot and characters. We don’t tell the reader our heroine behaves like a child; we show her throwing a temper tantrum when she gets a bad grade. We don’t tell the reader that time is running out; we show the ticking bomb and increase the characters’ desperation.
Here’s an amazing article by Chuck Palahniuk that discusses the removal of “thought” (Filter words! Something I’ve talked about before.). He really delves into the small-scale showing—it’s a must read!
When Telling Is Important
There are, of course, times when you want to tell instead of show. A few instances:
- Summary: We don’t always need a play-by-play of what the protagonist is doing. For example, it’s better to tell us: “He donned his uniform” than “He pulled on his undershirt, buttoned up his uniform shirt, tugged on his pants…”.
- Transitions: When time has passed between a scene/chapter, it’s good to debrief us on what happened in between and set the stage for the new scene. You can simply tell us that necessary information.
- Tough or Unreliable Characters: If a character is too tough to cry (Julie pointed out Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES), then sometimes we have to be told she’s sad—otherwise, we won’t pick up on it. If a character is unreliable or lying, sometimes we have to be told the truth (but shown the lie).
- To emphasize something we’ve seen: This is tricky because you HAVE to make sure your character/plot is consistent with what’s being told (insert critique partner here!). Essentially, you have a character comment on something we’ve seen—you tell us through this character something we already know to be true. For example, whenever a hero thinks about how beautiful a heroine is, this would be telling—and it only works if we’ve already been shown how lovely she is through his eyes. In that instance, we’re already convinced he really feels this way, and he’s simply confirming it.
- To keep pacing smooth: Sometimes it’s not okay to give us a detailed description of a character’s face/movement/feeling—maybe it bogs the dialogue down or slows the action. As such, it’s okay to simply tell us what happened (ex: “He gave a mocking grin” instead of “His lip quirked slightly, and a single eyebrow rose high”). You have to find a good balance between telling/showing in these cases. Too much telling, and you’re a sloppy writer. Not enough, and you’re slowing your scene.
I’m sure there are more I’m missing! When do you think telling is necessary? And how about showing—can you think of any other micro/macro examples?