A Long Look At “Show, Don’t Tell”

You hear that a lot, as a writer: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

It is, by itself, not entirely meaningful. Taken literally: films show, while novels tell. It’s doubly complicated by the word, “Storytelling.” As in, “To tell a story.” As in, “Wait, wasn’t I supposed to show instead of tell?”

As with all the succinct little amuse-bouches of writing advice, this particular nugget contains a modicum of wisdom if you can peel back the skin-flaps and chip away bone to find the heart of the thing underneath.

It’s like this:

We tell stories. But the advice asks us to look at how we tell those stories.

There exists a mode of telling stories which is strongly declarative: less visual, more intellectual and instructive, and with it comes the sense of a parent instructing a child. This mode relies more on telling.

There exists a mode of telling stories which asks more of the audience. It is more visual, more intuitive, and some might (falsely) claim it’s more “cinematic.” This mode relies more on showing.

Telling is explanation. It is definition. It is text. It says, This is that.

Showing is revelation and illustration. It is subtext. It asks, Is this that?

Telling walks ahead of you. It pulls you along.

Showing is the shadow behind. It urges you forward.

Telling invokes. Showing evokes.

Now, both modes have value in storytelling.

Sometimes you want to drop the audience into the space with no easy answers and have them feel around for themselves. Other times you need to take a moment, sit their ass in a chair, and give them a right-good talking-to. You need to tell them what’s up. You need them — if they’re going to proceed any further — to understand the sticky diplomatic relations between the jellyfish-like citizens of the Blumzorp Conglomerate and the constantly-micturating Night Goblins of the Moons of Hong.

Here, now, I will make some bold and debatable statements.

Generally, showing is a stronger mode of writing than straight-up telling.

The impact is more keenly felt. Imagine, if you will, a phone call where someone tells you, “Your mother is dead.” It’s a big gut-punch, that phone call. It’ll leave you reeling. Ah, but — now imagine a situation where you’re shown that rather than told it. Imagine you’re there when she dies. You’re there to feel the last flutter of a pulse, to share last words, to watch the life pass from her eyes as everything just… slumps.

The latter is more impactful, at least in my mind. The latter is you in that moment, witnessing it first-hand as a primary source. The audience wants to feel like a primary source — it gives them intimacy with the tale told and does not purport to keep them at arm’s length. Further, showing delivers a level of mystery, whereas telling often (though not always) obviates that mystery.

Another example, this one simpler but no less important:

Saying “John is angry” (telling) versus offering signs of John’s rage and irritation (showing).

You might reveal this through body language, through words chosen, through his actions. You’re letting the audience come to the conclusion regarding John’s vein-popping rage rather than straight up telling them he’s one pissed-off little monkey. Nothing wrong with letting the audience do some work.

Further, when we show things to the reader, we are building elements (character, setting, description) with details rather than letting a single statement (“John likes cake”) be the standard-bearer for the scene. Though therein lies a danger, too — just as you can tell too little, you can show too much.

When is telling more appropriate? Again, if you have information that absolutely must be conveyed, then telling is the way to go. It’s short and dirty and sometimes? It works. Further, you shouldn’t be afraid to have characters (through dialogue or, at times, through first-person POV) “tell” things. Explanation through a character’s voice and perspective still can carry with it the earmarks of showing — because just as it’s true that you as the author have choices in how you share information, so too do all the characters in your story. Characters speaking in their own voice are, in a way, showing.

And that’s maybe a lesson for the author, too — your voice in all this matters, and a strong and artful voice can make telling seem like showing even when it’s not.

What’s the ratio? How much showing versus how much telling? Since I like arbitrary made-up numbers with absolutely no reflection in reality, I’ll say, mmm, somewhere in the 70/30 split range, with the 70% going toward showing over telling. More to the point: more showing, less telling.

What say you, Internet? What’s your thoughts on this oft-spoken writing adage? Spun from gold? Heaped with bullshit? When is telling appropriate? Give examples or you get the hose.