You’ve probably heard about the advice “show, don’t tell” approximately one million times before. But how do you show without telling a least a little bit? There’s a fine balance between these two, so let’s explore that idea a bit, and then I’ll fill you in on why telling can be a serious insult to your reader.
Writing gurus chant this “show, don’t tell” mantra when descriptions become too wordy and unwieldy and stop contributing anything of value to an understanding of the thing being described – the description is bogging down the momentum of the story.
This is not to say that you can’t describe things, because of course you can. But think about the work that that description is doing for your story. Some people think describing clothes a character is wearing or the room she’s sitting in is a pointless exercise. If all it’s doing is just saying “hey, this is pretty,” then it might not be worth including it. If, however, the outfit has a symbolic significance in colour, pattern, style, or if she’s dressed with care to impress, that’s valuable information to the reader and provides context and a deeper understanding of the character. Likewise, if the room is setting a mood (it’s dark and shadowy, for example) to foreshadow an upcoming plot beat, sure.
More often, though, it’s description of internal thoughts or motivation that really triggers a “show, don’t tell” comment (at least from me when I’m editing!). This is especially jarring when we’re not in that character’s POV. For example:
“I disagree,” he said. He was so angry because she told him no and made him feel powerless.
Can we bring out that feeling of being angry and powerless in a different way that doesn’t involve getting into his head? Try this:
“I disagree,” he said, slamming down his glass with a thud. His hand clenched and unclenched ineffectually by his side.
You want the character to show what he’s feeling, not tell it. Why? Here’s the reason telling is detrimental to your storytelling:
It shows lack of trust in the reader.
By telling the reader what your character’s emotions are, you don’t give them the opportunity to figure it out on their own. It’s like giving away the ending of a mystery story the second after introducing the mystery itself. There’s no buildup, no suspense, no tension in learning more about the character and how he ticks. By showing through subtleties like movement, action, words spoken and unspoken, you guide the reader towards the impression you want to make rather than hitting them over the head with it by overwriting descriptions and intentions and emotions. Most readers don’t want to be pandered to; they want the experience of a story unfolding for them and revealing itself gradually.
So show, don’t tell, and trust your reader above all. They’ll thank you for it.