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I often tell my students to “show, don’t tell”—and for good reason. Showing is how we can make scenes come alive. Telling is talking about something. Showing is putting the reader on scene. Joyce Rachelle says, “It's always easier to tell people that a character is funny rather than attempt to hit the punchline of a joke that character would've said.”
Let me give some examples of telling and showing:
My dog growled when the man approached the car, so I rolled up my window.
My American Eskimo balanced his front paws against the panel below the passenger door window. His back paws danced on my lap.
I laughed. “Quinn, your feet are hard on my legs.”
He wagged his tail at my words. His black nose quivered at the scents the breeze carried through the open window. A woman and two kids hurried past our parked car and Quinn wagged again. Same with a couple men going by on the sidewalk.
I glanced toward the store my husband had gone into.
Quinn stilled, and growled.
A man walked up to our window. “Hey, could you spare a couple bucks?”
Quinn growled again. Shaking my head, I rolled up my window.
So, what’s different between the two? The first is a summary. The second has sensory details, dialogue, and action. There are specifics. You know the kind of dog and that he is friendly. You know we were waiting in a parking lot with at least one store. You know I’m married and my husband is inside a store. You know why the man approached me. And look at the active verbs not used in the telling: balanced, danced, wagged, quivered, carried, hurried, glanced, stilled, walked.
Here’s another example.
We lost the cat in the hotel room, but finally found him.
After we showered and dressed, I put our black cat Salem in one carrier, while my husband looked for our white cat. In the previous hotel Toes had hidden under an easy chair.
“I don’t see him.” Don let the room-darkening drapes fall back against the window.
I lifted up the blanket and duvet on my side of the bed. “He’s not over here.”
“And he’s not behind the dresser, the TV, or in the bathroom.”
I frowned. “How could we have lost a cat in a hotel room?”
Don’s eyebrows drew together. “I have no idea.”
“Kitty, kitty, kitty,” I called.
Salem in his carrier meowed. But nothing from Toes.
Come on, I thought. We need to get on the road. “Could he be under the bed?” I asked.
Don shook his head. “No, it’s a solid platform. Maybe he got down behind it.” He pulled the mattress away from the wall. “Nope. No space.” Then he saw the small opening in the fabric of the platform. “Hand me my flashlight.”
I pulled the flashlight out of the outside pocket of our suitcase and gave it to him.
After shining light inside the platform box, Don said, “I can see him. Back in the far corner.”
“How on earth are we going to get him out?!”
Note in this example there’s some summary written at the beginning: “we showered and dressed.” Those are everyday things where the details aren’t important or necessary to this story and is “telling.” The cat being lost and how we found him is “shown.” It includes some thoughts. And hopefully it left you wondering, how did we get Toes out? The answer: Don picked up the platform and shook the cat down to the opening where I grabbed him! For fiction, I would raise the stakes by making it urgent we got the cat out.
Jerry Jenkins says, “When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.” What can a reader deduce from my second example? That I’m puzzled, and a bit frustrated. I didn’t need to say, “How on earth are we going to get him out?!” I asked with frustration. “With frustration” would be telling on top of showing. A reader can deduce my frustration about the lost cat. What about the first example? How did I feel about the man who approached my window? Wary, distrustful. I showed that by rolling up my window. I didn’t state it, but felt if my little dog didn’t like him, there was something wrong and so I moved to protect myself.
R. Michael Burns says, “Provoke emotion through character reactions and vivid writing.” I still remember reading a scene from a book by Mary Stewart when I was a teen. The author’s description of a character’s meal that satisfied the character made me, the reader, hungry for that filet mignon. (Just like the juice from the steak in the above image makes my mouth water!)
I like this definition of telling: “it's a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment.” – Emma Darwin
Use telling for summaries. E.g. The set up: Jay is a main character who was in a car accident. The reader experienced the accident with Jay. Now the man is home. He might open the conversation like this: “I’m afraid my pickup is totaled.” Jay told his wife what had happened. “Hearing” the details of the accident again would be boring for the reader. Some new aspects may be revealed in dialogue and reactions, and those are worth sharing. E.g. “I knew you shouldn’t have driven tonight.” LeAnne sighed.
Use telling for transitions. E.g. Four hours later, we stopped for lunch. OR He drove all day. A reader doesn’t need a blow by blow of driving on a freeway, hour after hour, where not much happens. Telling often has a time composite. Both of these examples do. It can be longer—days, weeks, months. Use telling in those places everyone wants to skip.
I’ll end with this quote about showing: “Create a world in front of your readers where they can taste, smell, touch, hear, see, and move. Or else they are likely going to move on to another book.” ― Pawan Mishra
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.