‘Show, don’t tell’ is one of the most popular maxims of storytelling. It’s also one of the most widely misunderstood. So, what does it really mean?
In simple terms, ‘show, don’t tell’ distinguishes between two concepts: ‘telling’, where you give your reader the facts of a situation, and ‘showing’, where you use action and description to bring the reader into the scene and let them visualise it for themselves.
Showing and telling aren’t distinct things – you can’t neatly assign every sentence to one camp or the other. It’s better to think of them as the ends of a spectrum.
‘Show, don’t tell’ in practice
The easiest way to explain this is probably with a demonstration. Take this sentence, for example:
It was a cold night, and John was running late.
This sits comfortably under the banner of telling. It informs us, but nothing more. It doesn’t create a picture of the scene. We can’t infer much about John or how he reacts to the cold and his lateness, only that it is cold and he is late.
John pulled his coat tight against the brisk night air, checking his watch as he hurried through the street.
This leans a little more towards showing. We get the same basic facts, but described as an observer might experience them. As readers, we can begin to imagine how this scene is unfolding, and we can draw a few conclusions about John and his situation based on how he responds to it. We’re no longer just being told about the scene; we’re watching it.
John pulled his coat tight, feeling the rough wool strain against his sides as he staggered and stumbled across the cobbles of Tanner Street. The night air caught like icicles in his throat. He paused under the faint glow of streetlamp to check his wristwatch. ‘Half twelve, already,’ he thought. ‘Alice’ll have my guts.’
This one takes showing a step further. We experience the scene through John’s eyes, feeling what he feels and even being given access to his thoughts. By delving deep into the physical and sensory details of the scene, it evokes a sense of how it would feel to be there and lets us experience it first hand. We’re not just watching the scene; we’re immersed in it.
Is showing better then telling?
Well… no, not really. This is where the advice of ‘show, don’t tell’ is often taken too literally.
Showing and telling both have their strengths, and too much of either can be fatal for your story. The point of ‘show, don’t tell’ is to encourage newer writers – who often rely far too much on telling – to show when the situation demands it.
So when, and why, should we show?
The biggest strength of showing is that it brings you closer to the scene. This is known as reducing narrative distance. A closer narrative distance makes the action more real and more engaging. A particularly dramatic scene such as a battle or a lover’s reunion will have vastly more emotional impact if your readers are able to experience it from inside your character’s head – if they get to feel the crush of bodies or the moment the heroine’s heart goes still.
Showing is also excellent for character development and world building. By being closer to the scene and John’s experience of it, we were able to infer far more about John and his surroundings from the latter examples than we could from the first. This is also a great way to build empathy with a character, meaning your readers will be much more bought in to their struggle as the story develops.
However, as you can see from the examples above, showing takes up a lot more room on the page. It would be easy to devote paragraphs to evoking every detail, to the extent that the real substance of the story gets buried. Showing is also slower – the action is happening in real time, and we’re experiencing it first hand. Telling lets us step back from the moment, speeding up or skipping over time as necessary.
Telling is also useful for giving the reader information that isn’t part of your character’s experience. For example, it’d be pretty weird if John started thinking about how tall he was, or that the year was 1904. One possible solution would be to open the scene by telling the reader some establishing information, before closing in to show them the events as they unfold.
A word of warning
One interpretation of ‘show, don’t tell’ is that telling states the facts, while showing presents the evidence and lets the reader reach their own conclusions. While there’s an element of truth to that interpretation, taking it too far can lead to some very poor writing.
Let me explain. You’ll notice that in the second and third examples above, I never actually said that John was late. I told you that he checked his watch, and in the latter example that he had lost track of the time and that Alice was going to be upset with him. You could infer pretty easily that he was running late without me having to tell you.
There are a number of reasons why you might want to avoid explicitly stating facts. For one, it encourages readers to engage with the scene, drawing them further into the story. It can also be used to create deliberate ambiguity or doubt, such as in the case of a murder mystery. However, don’t go creating ambiguity simply because you think showing means the reader has to work it out for themselves.
For example, instead of ‘John checked his wristwatch’ I could have said ‘John pulled back his sleeve to peer at the glass disc on his wrist’. You could say that would be more of a show, but unless I actually want you to wonder about this fancy wrist contraption, it doesn’t really do anything that the original sentence didn’t. It doesn’t build character or world more effectively. It doesn’t create atmosphere or draw you in. It just makes it less clear.
- Telling means informing the reader of the facts. It’s brief, clear, and lets you compress time and focus on what’s important.
- Showing means bringing the reader into the scene using action and sensory detail. It lets the reader picture the scene in their mind, builds engagement, and helps develop your characters.
- It isn’t a case of either/or – it’s a spectrum. The trick is knowing when to show, when to tell, and when to strike somewhere in between.
- Avoid creating ambiguity unless you actually want to. Sometimes it’s simply better to be explicit.