You’ve heard the phrase, “Show don’t tell.” Writing instructors throw it around all the time. Show don’t tell. We novelists hear it over and over, and sometimes it’s frustrating. Why? Because often, the phrase “show don’t tell” is tossed about, unexplained. What does it actually mean?
I’ve heard a few different answers to that question, myself. “Showing makes your reader see it in their minds, but telling doesn’t.” “Telling is passive.” “Showing creates feeling.” All of those things are true, but they’re all pretty ambiguous, and it frustrates novelists—especially beginners. How do you know if you’re doing it right?
Showing vs. Telling: How They Work
- Dry (no fluff)
- To the point
Contrary to what you may have heard, telling does have a place in your novel. Telling is what you use to communicate facts in short order. These facts have no emotional value, which is why it’s okay to tell them. For example: “There was a slight delay, but the train made it to London in time for his meeting.” Telling is used to transfer your reader from one place to the next in a sentence or two, and should, in general, be used much more sparingly than showing. It’s only used in areas where emotion is not the main objective, which is rare.
- Creates flowing imagery
These three reasons are why showing is stronger than telling, and thus, why it should be used more frequently. Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of the light on broken glass.” Why is this? It’s because moonlight on broken glass can be used to create an emotional reaction in your reader and in your characters. What mood are you trying to set? Is this a tragic scene? Are you building dread? All-out terror? Think about the emotions that these mental images create, and use that to your advantage. That’s what showing is all about.
How to Tell When You’re Showing:
If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably had those definitions of showing vs. telling stored away in your brain. You know that stuff. But then how come you feel like you constantly have to second-guess yourself when writing? Here are a the two main things to keep in mind:
1. What mood am I trying to create?
Always keep in mind the emotion you’re trying to communicate in a scene. Writing is all about emotion. The emotion in the characters; the emotion in the readers; the emotion in you as the writer. Writing in general is an emotional experience for all involved. The best way to go about showing rather than telling is to have a clear picture of what feeling you are trying to communicate in this scene. If you don’t have any idea what your mood is, you’re probably not showing.
2. What details can I use to help communicate that emotion?
Details are the most vital piece of showing. It’s absolutely crucial what you decide to put in, and what you decide to leave out. Think about a movie for a second. Think about the shots used in an emotional scene. Are they helicopter shots? Usually, no. Most often, they’re close-ups, either of characters, or something else. There is a particular shot in one of the Hobbit movies that portrays emotion very well, when a doll is shown burning in the streets of Dale. It’s easy to think that it would be most impactful to describe the entirety of the burning city, but the reality is that snapshots like this are what drive the emotion home. What makes you feel emotion? Keep your eyes open for what details would be most beneficial to your scene. If you find yourself leaving these out, you’re probably not giving your reader the full emotional experience they want.
Showing makes your prose feel alive. It’s like watching a movie as opposed to flipping through a scrapbook full of stills. “He was standing” isn’t as interesting as “He stood.” One implies action, and the other doesn’t. Showing keeps your prose moving at all times. It doesn’t allow your words, your characters, or your world to be dormat. The secret is learning what to focus on, and how to keep the flow smooth from one thing to another. This comes with practice. You’ve got to train yourself to view your world as if you were really there—through the lens of how it makes you feel.
But what about scenes that aren’t uber-emotional?
You don’t want some scenes to be alive, and others dead. That doesn’t make for a well-balanced narrative, which is what will make your story function. This is why it’s important to understand your character’s emotional arcs. Realize that there are some scenes that require more intense emotions than others—but nonetheless, all scenes do require emotion of some sort.
It’s easy to say, “Well, nobody dies, or is attacked, or kidnapped in this scene…so it’s not really that important.” Then you slip into telling to “get through” the unimportant scenes. Don’t.
It’s a common misconception that showing requires more words than telling, and while that is sometimes true, it’s definitely possible to show in brief, fluff-free sentences. Showing does not equal fluff. It simply means something is moving. Something is alive. Something is happening all the time—whether it’s inside the character; in his thoughts, emotions, etc., or external, around him; in the world, or with other characters. It shows that your world is alive and real—all the time; not just when emotions are intense.
Imagery matters in every scene you write, and the number one way to tell if you’re showing is to constantly be asking yourself: Does this make my story feel alive? If not, ask yourself what you might need to focus on to change that.
Can you think of ways you’ve been successful at showing in your novel? Which of your scenes feel the most alive? Leave a comment and share!