When I first started writing I would have my work critiqued and the most common comment was “show don’t tell”. I would put “He was disappointed.” (telling) rather than “His eyes dropped to the floor and he sighed as his shoulder sagged.” (showing) Showing lets the reader experience what your character is doing/feeling with them as though they are experiencing it too and it makes them more engaging and the reader feel a stronger connection to them.
I struggled with this concept for quite some time because I really don’t know what it meant and how often I should use one versus the other. Do I show everything and never tell a single thing? Do I tell a bit and show the rest? What’s the best way to tell if you’re going to do it?
Frustrating right? Well, I did learn a thing or two from other authors and my own trial and error. Though I’m sure there are many schools of thought on this, I’ll share what wisdom I have and you can take what works for you.
C.S. Lewis said on the subject in a letter to a fan.
“In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.””
(Here is the link to the full letter. http://networkedblogs.com/vXTCu)
Showing is definitely an important part of the story as it brings out elements of character, setting and details, however telling has its place as well. General rule of thumb that seems to be shared by most authors and readers is you should be showing more than telling but when do you use one over the other?
Telling is a great way to describe or explain things quickly. It can be used when describing a long period of time. Though it doesn’t allow the reader to experience this with the character, it doesn’t slow the pace of the story either or bog it down with unnecessary details.
When doing transitions and moving from one part of the story to the other or a scene break, telling or giving a summary can make the movement more seamless. However, too much telling can be boring so by adding some showing though using action/movement, thoughts or dialogue can even it out and keep the reader engaged.
Backstory is always a tricky element to add, because you don’t want to overwhelm your reader by going on and on with description and details. But the information might be necessary for the reader to know in order to understand events coming up or shifts in the character’s behaviour. Telling can work great for this but it’s important to keep it to a paragraph so the flow isn’t interrupted and the reader doesn’t feel weighed down. You want to leave the readers wanting more…not closing the book for the night.
Flashbacks can be made more interesting with a mix of showing and telling. Again, keeping the pace moving is key and by adding showing with telling the reader feels like they are part of the experience.
Your writing should favor showing over telling but if it’s too heavy with the showing it’ll feel too much like work for the reader. It your telling too much your reader will have a hard time connecting with your character and their story. Find the mix that works for you in your story. Though there isn’t a hard and fast answer on when to use one over the other, it’s important to get a good balance. Show more; telling less and you’ll find your story will breathe a life of its own.