The short version
Take home messages:
- 'Tell' the less interesting background information.
- 'Show' the exciting stuff...
- ..but don’t over-describe. If you’re relating a scene from someone’s point of view, include only the details they would notice.
The long version
One of the most often repeated pieces of writing advice is: Show, don’t tell.
At its most basic, telling is a bland recital of a bunch of stuff that’s happened – a list of observations delivered by a disinterested third-party.
Showing, on the other hand, digs into details and sensations and delivers information in a vivid, descriptive way that helps puts the reader at the heart of the action.
Chekhov summed it up like this.
Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Having said this, we should add that there’s actually nothing wrong with telling, it can be a useful way of imparting information in a concise and efficient way. The trick is figuring out when to do one and not the other.
Here’s an example of telling:
Harry walked down to the store and bought himself a pack of gum and a magazine. When he stepped outside, he found an old man waiting near the door. Harry turned away, but the old man hit him with his walking stick and Harry collapsed on the ground. He fended off a couple more blows, then managed to hook his foot round the old man’s leg and pull him off balance. The old man fell, giving Harry enough time to stand up and high-tail it back up the road.
The above relates an unusual development in Harry’s life, but the telling is very matter-of-fact and does little to excite us. How can we liven it up?
For our purposes, the first sentence is all about scene setting, and the current version does all that we want it to – it tells us where Harry has gone and why he went there. Since there's no reason to jazz it up, we’ll leave it as it is.
In another version of the same tale, it might be important that we describe Harry’s walk to the store in more detail. For example, if our story takes place in winter and we want to establish this fact, we could 'show' Harry shivering in his overcoat with his breath misting before his face. Alternatively, if Harry lives in a rough part of town, and the reader needs to know this, we could show the graffiti-covered walls and broken windows that Harry passes as he walks down the street.
In this case, we just want Harry to get from A to B so we ‘tell’ the information in a simple, direct way. It's only once Harry steps out of the store that things start to get interesting...
The attack on Harry is a significant plot development, so we want to describe it in some detail. Now is the time to start showing. For example, the old man is obviously an important character at this point, so we want to flesh him out a little. However, we must remember that, as far as Harry is concerned, the old man is a harmless stranger. Ordinarily, Harry would not pay the old man much attention, and since we’re seeing this scene from Harry’s point of view, we should give the readers only the details that Harry would pick up on. Something like this…
Harry stepped outside. An old guy wearing a shabby raincoat and fur cap stood facing the door. He looked annoyed, like he was waiting for Harry to hurry up get out of his damn way. Harry obliged. He folded the magazine under his arm and turned back for home, then gasped as something heavy and solid whacked across his spine. He cried out again as another blow caught the side of his head – a crack that sent stars spinning behind his eyes. Caught off balance, he fell on his side, the impact with the sidewalk rattling his teeth, looking up now as the old man lifted his walking stick for a third strike…
And so on. Here the showing gives us a blow by blow (literally in this case) account of the sensations that accompany Harry’s beating, making it a far more visceral and engaging experience for the reader.
Telling is fine when you want to compress information and deliver it in a neat, economical package, but when something significant happens, slow down and ask yourself if you should be showing instead.
– – –
The following is a sample from my Jack Bleacher novella. Most of the story takes place in and around a fictitious New Mexico town. I could have included a detailed description of the town and what Bleacher sees there, but there wasn't anything that important to 'show' (most small towns are broadly the same). What was important was the fact that the town is empty, so I showed enough detail to get that point across. When I came to the factory, I turned up the 'show' a little more. The factory is out of the ordinary and is a significant location in the tale. It deserved some extra attention...
"Main street split Cubo from north to south. I came up through the outskirts to a central section that was mostly given over to shoe stores, grocers, barbers and the like. There was everything you'd expect to see in the way of small town commerce, but all the buildings I passed were abandoned, their windows and doors boarded over with shrunken plywood that rattled when the wind got under it.
I arrived at what must have passed for the industrial district, a broad plain of empty parking lots and warehouse facilities dominated by a single factory building, presumably the one Gummy had mentioned as being stunk-out on a regular basis. The factory was a tall, flat-roofed structure built in a 1930s modernistic, block-architecture style. It must have been something to see when it was new, Bauhaus in the desert, but now its minimalist concrete shell was cracked and discoloured, and its tall iron-framed windows were red with rust; a relic of past prosperity, when the factory still made something the rest of the world wanted to buy.
Perhaps it still did. Unlike the rest of town, someone had been spending money on the place. The chain-link fence that surrounded the factory was bent and saggy enough to be an original feature, but it was topped with coils of shiny razor wire that definitely weren't. There were also modern security lamps clamped to a series of scaffolding poles erected around the perimeter, the dull metal posts entwined with new high-voltage electrical cable that coiled down into the ground. I didn't have a view of the main entrance, but I was prepared to bet significant body parts that the gate had a new lock on it. Someone was working hard to keep the premises secure, and I guessed that someone was called Grosswurst."
If you'd like to find out more, click the book.