An exasperated author I know once wrote back to me saying, “Yeah, everybody says that: ‘show, don’t tell.’ But I can’t figure out what they mean! How do I know which is which?”
"Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream." — Mark Twain
Of course, “show, don’t tell” is really figurative. In a literal way, an author is telling a story. The writer uses words, not paint, so it’s not possible to really show the weather on an August afternoon.
Let’s look at an example of telling, and see how it could be improved.
It was hot, and the sun was bright. There was no breeze at all. Jerry sat under a shade tree, staring off into the distance.
How can we invite the reader into the story by “showing” the scene? Don’t just tell the reader it was hot. Make her feel the sun in her eyes, the thirsty air.
Jerry sat under the big sycamore, squinting across the yard. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he could see Rover lying in the shade of his doghouse. The dog hadn’t moved once, except to get a drink a half-hour ago. Even the trees slumped, lethargic in the still air.
The second version gives the reader images to work with. He can see the scene, and maybe feel it: a big sycamore, a thirsty dog in the shade, lethargic trees. Note that the word lethargic also reinforces what we’ve already seen in Jerry and the dog.
Passages involving people are often the most in need of improvement.
Sarah was infatuated with Eric. She stared at him all through the class.
The bell rang, and she got up quickly, wanting to stay close behind Eric while they walked to English. Unfortunately, she was in such a rush that she tripped.
Here we get the facts, and we can follow the story. But facts aren’t enough. The writer needs to grab the reader’s attention.
Chin in hand, Sarah sat staring at Eric. Thank goodness he was in the row ahead of hers, so he couldn’t catch her looking!
The bell startled her. She jumped up and gathered her books, then pushed forward so she wouldn’t lose sight of him on the way to English class. Just as she caught up, her foot slipped, and she knocked him out of the way before crashing to the ground with her books.
What happens next? Does Eric think she’s an idiot? Or does he help her up, charmed by her clumsiness? I don’t know about you, but I am a lot more curious after reading this version than I was after reading the first.
Sometimes dialogue is used to tell part of a story. That can be a great way to show relationships and emotional reactions. I can also be a pretty bad way to tell about plot necessities. Don’t mistake dialogue for painting a picture with words.
"Well, Suze, I’d like to go bowling with you, but I have to take Bill to visit his mom. Didn’t you hear? She got hit by a semi-truck on I-5 last week, and went into a coma. Turned out the driver was Sandy-Jo’s cousin, the one from Montana who just got out of prison. Remember, we were wondering what happened to him?"
It looks to me like a publisher requested a reduction in the number of words, and the writer didn’t want to lose any of the plot. But really, does the reader deserve to be put through this torture? I don’t think so.
I’ll leave you with one more set of examples.
The frightened family waited in the dining room for the storm to end. The oak tree outside was hit by a bolt of lightning, sending a large branch crashing into the house.
That last could have been taken from the insurance report their lawyer filed for them. What follows is, I hope, a more interesting description.
Sam and the girls huddled in the dining room while the wind rushed outside, and rain pounded the windows. Each thunder-crash was louder than the last. He felt a tingle, and then heard, or felt, a violent crash overhead. It had to be the oak.
The next time someone says that you need “more showing, less telling,” you can take it in stride. Now you know that they’re just looking for more involvement in the story. And you’re a writer. You can do that!