Show, Don't Tell

Show, don’t tell, an axiom you’ll hear if you’ve spent any time at all around writers, or been in an english class at some point. For a three word axiom, it hides a surprising amount of complexity within. At its core, all it means is that you should write the experience of the world you’re creating, not the experience of the characters experiencing the world. But this sort of thing is best explained through example, so let’s get to it.

Luca was hot from trudging through the desert for hours.

The above sentence is, obviously, an example of telling. I am telling you what Luca felt, and what sort of situation he was in. This is fairly utilitarian and can work, but chances are, you didn’t feel the heat. You couldn’t tell how tired he was. So let me try that again.

Luca wiped his brow and flinched as his sunburned skin stung under his hand. With little choice in the matter, he pressed on, each step requiring more energy than normal to compensate for the sand shifting under foot.

Now, that up there is far from perfect. But, I’m not telling you that Luca was hot and in a desert. You are seeing him wipe the sweat from his brow. You’re seeing the effects of him having been out in the desert for an extended period of time. You’re seeing how he feels by what actions he takes. A good technique I’ve heard for showing with individual characters is to get into their body. If they’re angry, describe what that anger feels like physically. When they’re angry, do they clench their fists? Maybe they take off their glasses for some reason? Likewise, if a character is embarrassed, I want to feel their cheeks burning. I want to see their averted gaze. That style of description is far more impactful than simply saying “she was embarrassed.”

One of the other most important places to show instead of telling is with worldbuilding. First off, let’s get something straight. No one cares about your world as much as you do. It is 100% fine and even expected that you have pages and pages of info on your world that never comes up in your story. We don’t usually need to know what each city exports. We don’t need to know when each kingdom was founded and by whom. And we definitely don’t need paragraphs of exposition on what the land is like, or how magic works. We’ll be able to tell the climate based on how the characters react to it, and hopefully the magic system is intuitive enough that just seeing it action will give us an idea of how it works. Instead of aggressively expositing how the queen rules with an iron fist, show the effects. Show kids going to work in dangerous environments. If there’s a class system, we’ll know when you start using words like peasant and noble.

When showing us your story in this way, there is really only one major pitfall: filter words. These are words that don’t show what the world is like, they instead tell you what a character experienced. Example time.

Yuki felt depressed.

In this case, we’re not feeling Yuki’s depression, all we know is she felt bad. There is zero emotional impact here. So let’s fix this up. Let’s get depressed!

The shadows around Yuki grew darker as her emotions slowly went cold and, eventually, numb.

Better, right? In this second sentence, Yuki’s emotional state is much more vivid. This is because in the first sentence, “felt” was a filter word. It got between you- the reader -and what the words were meant to convey and gave you the information second hand. That is to say, the emotion was filtered through Yuki. I’d recommend looking up and keeping an eye out for filter words. Obviously, every word has a place, but in a lot of cases, filter words just get in the way.

Hopefully by now, you’re catching on. Showing is usually better than telling. Usually. So when should you not show? I would say, tell anytime showing detracts from what you want to communicate. For example, when you want to skip over a chunk of time. Instead of giving us every detail about how your protagonist’s been training with their master, you could give us a quick show of how, generally, they felt about their training and then tell us briefly how it went and how much time passed. However, this only really applies if nothing plot related happens for that entire time. You can also use telling to skip over things that your protagonist finds boring. We don’t need to know how it felt every single day they took their usual bus to work, or how mind numbing their work was. Skip over all that with a little telling and get back to the good stuff. Telling should always be used to get back to the point where you can show your reader interesting stuff.

When people say “show, don’t tell” the say it honestly, because in most cases, showing instead of telling vastly improves the story. In the best cases, it tells readers what they need to know in an interesting way, and may even make them feel smart for figuring some of it out on their own. The best way to show is to get into your character’s body and use their senses to describe the scene they’re in. Hopefully you can do that without filter words getting in the way and robbing the scene of emotional impact. When showing would be boring and overlong, you can feel free to switch to telling, but only for long enough to get the story to the next interesting part. Hopefully, that’s not too far off. After all, I think we all want our stories to be more interesting than not.