Have you heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”? Have you ever had a reader suggest that you “show” as scene rather than just explain it? And have you wondered what the heck they mean or how in the world to do it?
The concept of showing vs. telling is really overused and not clearly understood, so I’m going to try to clarify the most important elements of it and give you a tool that you can use to make sure that you are giving the reader what they need in order to fully engage with your story.
The first thing I want to say comes from the classroom. This is something said a lot by teachers, and on a basic level, showing means letting the reader see/feel/hear what the characters are experiencing using language that is rich with description. So when a student writes “I fell off my bike and it hurt,” a teacher might suggest adding in some sensory details. What sounds did they hear? What did it feel like when they scraped their knee? The teacher will suggest to slow the scene down and give the reader enough details to visualize or maybe vicariously experience the bike crash. But “showing” a reader the scene is not just about sensory details, and as adult writers we need to take a few other things into consideration.
There is a famous Chekov quote that goes like this: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” This is the bigger picture of the concept of show vs. tell. You are showing the reader things that matter to the story. If the pile of books on the table doesn’t matter, then the reader doesn’t need to know that it’s there. But if the pile of books shows us something important about the character or the action, then yes, show it. So it’s not just about showing random details in the scene, it’s about intentionally showing details that matter, even in the slightest way. Every detail that you choose to show needs to teach us something about the protagonist or other important character, or it needs to inform the setting, or it needs to build tension, or it needs to propel the story forward in some way.
Then we need to understand why the object or smell or sound or whatever mattered. Don’t just tell us that the pile of books matters because the character is an introverted bookworm who’d rather read than go out into the world. SHOW that through her actions and choices. Maybe when presented with an invitation to go out with friends, she looks at that pile of books longingly before making her choice.
Now, it needs to be said that there are absolutely times when you have to just tell the reader something, and the truth is that there is no absolute percentage of how much you should do of one or the other. I’ve read books that are loaded with telling…and I’ve read others where it feels like more than half of it is describing the land. That’s why this concept is one that you can work toward in your first draft, but it’s more likely that you’re going to catch it and flesh out your “showing” in revisions. This is where it can be very helpful to get a little feedback from a trusted reader. If you hear comments such as “this scene went by too fast” or “I couldn’t picture it” or “I wanted more here…” those are indications that more showing is needed.
Here is an exercise you can try to play with the idea of telling vs. showing. Choose a short scene from your work in progress. On a separate sheet of paper or blank document, write what happens with no detail at all. Something like “June comes home from work, and she and Maria get into a fight.” Then try writing that scene completely overloaded with details…way more than you would ever use. Go for five, six, seven pages, maybe more. Include absolutely everything you can think of. (If it feels ridiculous, you’re doing it right.) Then, after you’ve walked away and taken a breath, go back to the long version with a highlighter and highlight every detail that matters to the story. Remember, it needs to inform a character or setting, build tension, or move the story forward in some way. When you’re done highlighting, delete everything else.
Psst… Taking a scene from telling to showing is a great use of an Unstick Your Story consultation. You can send me up to 5 pages, and we can revise them together on our call. Or, if you have a different issue that you need help working through, we can do that too! To learn more and schedule your call, click here!
Writers, the phase “show don’t tell” is ubiquitous and a little confusing, so just remember this: let your reader know what matters by giving them details that they can visualize and also use as clues to learn more about your characters and your story. It can be hard work, and it’s a great place to get a little help when you’re ready. We want readers to see your story in a three-dimensional way, because that’s how your story will make an impact. I’ll talk to you next week!