For many writers, this is one of our least favorite sentences because we have all heard it so many damn times, “show, don’t tell.” Though it is really great advice, especially when you’re a new writer it doesn’t really provide a solution. Why is it so important to show your audience what is happening rather than telling them? And what does that even mean?
So much of what we write in stories is intuitive to us. Action, description, dialogue all makes sense. For some reason, nearly every writer who has ever existed struggled to show until course corrected by other writers. We often crave the other pieces of our story and jump right in without any consideration for how we are telling the story. This is what makes it a craft.
Pieces We Tell
Think about how you first tell stories? All of us at some point in our lives tell those around us, things that have happened to us, whether cautionary or comedic. We love sharing our stories with others. It is an essential social skill we learn to become more connected to those around us. The rub comes when you put it on paper. Written word is intrinsically cold. There is feeling in the voice of the writer, but no relationship between the writer and the reader that exists until your first story is received.
Take this into consideration then. What if you met a complete stranger and the very first words out of your mouth to them was “A long time ago, I climbed Mount Everest, and I lost two fingers from frost bite.” Might be a little off putting. Even more so if you were on a phone call with them and you can’t see that they are in fact missing two fingers.
Taking that same scenario, what if you just stood their, hands in front of you and they asked “what happened to your hand?” Despite this being a bit rude, they have invited an explanation. They saw something was off before you presented them with the details.
Going back to your story, they can’t see you and they can’t hear you, all they can do is read what you have to say. Using your language to convey what something may feel like to the reader gives them a private view into something they are invited to ask questions about.
Show Me Don’t Tell Me
“Earl Marx stood on the train. His face contorted in a grimace as he leaned into his leg. He fidgeted his right hand, barely concealing the three fingers he had on his left.” This is far from perfect, but you see an image, and now you’re probably just as curious about his leg as you are about his hand.
The contrast may be something like this: “Earl Marx stood on the train, he leaned on his leg and looked uncomfortable. He held his right hand over his left hand, which only had three fingers, trying to conceal it. His right hand fidgeted.” Again, I may be overdoing the example, but this is a lot more choppy and there’s no sense of how he’s feeling, just a cold description from the narrator.
Now lets try something really good!
“A man stood at the back of the train car tucked away near one of the walk throughs. He was tall, and I recognized immediately it was the renown Everest explorer Earl Marx. He didn’t look around much, just at his shoes, but his face was contorted as he struggled to balance leaning to one side. Every once in a while I noticed he seems to fidget his fingers on his right hand. That’s when I noticed he was covering his other hand and I could only make out three fingers.”
I won’t pretend like that last paragraph is perfect because it isn’t, but there’s a noticeable difference. There’s a clearer narrative from another character that you can possibly relate to. Sitting on a train you’re watching this tall figure standing in the corner trying not to be seen. You also get a sense of what the character is noticing as he is noticing it. Using this perspective allows the reader to experience it for themselves. They don’t feel like they are being told, they are seeing it for themselves.
Hopefully this gives you some idea of what other writers mean when they say show, don’t tell, and as always, best of luck with your writing endeavors.