Showing vs Telling: What the heck does it mean?

Ah, the old show vs. tell debate.  Long time readers will know that I use this blog to try to figure out the deeper meaning behind writing advice.  I’m finally wading in to this one gang, so buckle up.

If you’re a writer, at some point you’ve received feedback that a section of your book suffers from “telling” instead of “showing”.  We’ve all gotten it, and it’s quite poorly understood, so let’s dive right in together and figure this out.

#1. What is Showing vs. Telling?

It’s exactly what it sounds like.  It’s the difference between telling the reader, factually, what happened, versus showing them what happened and letting them fill in the blanks.

Showing is providing vivid descriptions, sensory inputs and action sequences rather than telling, which is providing simple statements of fact.

Let’s look at the difference in an example:

Telling: It was late at night and she was tired.

In the above, there is no room for the reader to misinterpret the scene.  We are told, factually, the time and the characters feelings.   The reader is doing very little mental work to craft the scene in their heads.

Showing: The moonlight reflected off the puddles in the street.  Her head drooped to her chin, as weariness soaked into her limbs.

In the above, we are able to infer the time of day (late) and we are able to guess she’s tired from the queues (head drooping, weariness, etc).  The reader is forced to imagine the scene, based on sensory and visual cues.

#2. Well so what?  I mean, honestly.  What’s everyone’s problem?

Yeah.

This is kind of the rub with this particular piece of advice.  So what?  Who cares? Honestly, why does any of this matter?  Can’t I just write “It was late at night and she was tired”?

I think you can.  As with every piece of writing advice, you have to get underneath the “rule” to understand what’s driving it.

I’ve thought a lot about this one, and I think it boils down to how reading works and what it means to be engaged.

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“I do” says your readers, ideally.

We’ve all read books where we forget that we’re reading.  We’re completely wrapped up in the action and the pages fly by.  We forget we’re sitting in our living rooms and instead are transported to other places, other emotions, other experiences.

How does this happen?

“It’s good writing, stupid.”  That’s the easy answer.  The harder answer is more nuanced.  “It’s activating an incredibly specific part of the brain that actually forces you do more work in picturing the story.”

As a reader, your imagination needs to be activated.  The part of your brain that is responsible for creating images and recalling sensory details needs to be turned up to ten.  What kills this is when you’re forced to think or memorize.  When you’re reading and you’re forced to think, you’re using the wrong part of your brain.

Showing activates a readers imagination

Telling activates a readers comprehension

Put another way – a history text book is 100% tell.  It is conveying information through the use of facts.  It is not designed for ambiguity.  Similarly, your imagination is never turned up when reading a history text book.  You’re trying to memorize facts and figures.  The wrong part of your brain is activated.

#3. So I can never tell the reader anything?

Sure you can.  It’s the same as every other piece of writing advice.  You can do it, but be aware why you’re doing it and what the impact is on the reader.

Here’s a great example of showing, mixed with telling.  It’s from Stephen King’s “The Stand”.  It’s a scene where one of the main characters needs to walk through an underground tunnel that is filled with dead people, and is terrified to do so:


It was much blacker inside than he had imagined it would be. At first the opening behind him cast dim white light ahead and he could see yet more cars, jammed in bumper to bumper, and the greenish-white tiles that dressed the upward-curving walls. He could see the pedestrian railing to his right, stretching dimly ahead. On his left, at thirty- or forty-foot intervals, were big support pillars. A sign advised him DO NOT CHANGE LANES. There were dark fluorescents embedded in the tunnel’s roof, and the blank glass eyes of closed-circuit TV cameras. And as he negotiated the first slow, banked curve, bearing gently to the right, the light grew dimmer until all he could see were muted flashes of chrome. After that the light simply ceased to exist at all.

He fumbled out his Bic, held it up, and spun the wheel. The light it provided was pitifully small, feeding his unease rather than assuaging it. Even with the flame turned up all the way it only gave him a circle of visibility about six feet in diameter


 

Okay.  What do you feel when you read that scene?  Can you get a sense of the characters dread?  The reluctance he feels?

Let’s closely examine those paragraphs and see if we can figure out how S.K. combines tactical details to aid our comprehension of the scene (telling) with vivid imagery to activate our imagination (showing).

For the purpose of this exercise, I’m evaluating show vs. tell on what I think is the point of these paragraphs:

  1. Get a mental picture in our head of what the tunnel looks like
  2. Get a sense of how terrified the MC is.

So the distinction I use is anytime he writes, with zero ambiguity, about either of those two things, it’s a tell.  (the tunnel was dark, he was scared).  Any time he abstracts the description or emotion through imagery or sensory description, it’s showing.

Ready?  Here we go:

It was much blacker inside than he had imagined it would be (FILTERING- I’LL COVER THIS IN A DIFFERENT ARTICLE). At first the opening behind him cast dim white light ahead (TELLING) and he could see yet more cars, jammed in bumper to bumper (SHOWING) and the greenish-white tiles that dressed the upward-curving walls (TELLING). He could see the pedestrian railing to his right, stretching dimly ahead (TELLING). On his left, at thirty- or forty-foot intervals, were big support pillars (TELLING). A sign advised him DO NOT CHANGE LANES (SHOWING). There were dark fluorescents embedded in the tunnel’s roof (TELLING), and the blank glass eyes (SHOWING) of closed-circuit TV cameras (TELLING). And as he negotiated the first slow, banked curve, bearing gently to the right (TELLING), the light grew dimmer (TELLING) until all he could see were muted flashes of chrome (SHOWING). After that the light simply ceased to exist at all (SHOWING).

He fumbled out his Bic, held it up, and spun the wheel. (SHOWING) The light it provided was pitifully small (SHOWING), feeding his unease rather than assuaging it (TELLING). Even with the flame turned up all the way (SHOWING) it only gave him a circle of visibility about six feet in diameter (SHOWING)

Do you see what he does there?  He mixes in tactical details to orient the reader (the opening cast dim white light), while forcing you to use your imagination (cars jammed in bumper to bumper).

#4. Ugh.  This is a lot to remember.  Can you put this in a meme so I can post it on Instagram?

S.. sure?

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#5. Great.  So what’s the “big picture” takeaway?

Two things:

  1. When you get a writing critique, inevitably someone will comment “This is telling, not showing”.  Now you know what the difference is between the two, you can decide if you care.
  2. While the entire book can’t be telling, the whole thing also can’t be showing.  You need a healthy mix of both.

I get that this is a lot to remember, but remember the tagline:

Writing is hard.

Get to work.

3 comments

  1. Great post! I will try to mix up the two. Really not sure which I use more but I expect it is ‘telling’. I guess my first job is to figure out my own tendency (telling or showing) when writing. Was happy to see you use ‘The Stand’. It is my favourite book: that tunnel scene gets me every time…

    1. Yes, me too! I used that specifically because so many people who have read the Stand said that scene stood out for them

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