Probably the most famous quote about show and tell ever:
"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me
the glint of light on broken glass"
- Anton Chekov
One of the most consistent criticisms I’ve received during our editing sessions is that I often tell my readers what is going on, instead of showing them. I am trying very hard to eradicate this flaw, but still rogue sentences keep cropping up.
This led me to think about show and tell, what is the difference? And does it really matter?
Showing is active: Diane’s lip trembled. Showing allows the reader to feel the experiences and emotions of the character by expressing them in a physical way. Showing involves using the five senses, taste, touch, feel, hear, and see, as well as thought patterns and emotions.
Telling is passive: Diane was scared. Telling is giving the reader the information they need to know what is going on in the story, and where the story is up to. Too much telling can really slow a story down. Readers will feel removed from the story.
This is a typical example of telling, not showing:
Living on a cul-de-sac seriously prohibits your privacy, and pretty soon it seemed that the whole of the street was in my living room, fussing around me.
The narrator of the story was in the middle of labour, the ambulance had been diverted, and her neighbours had come over to help.
This is the same example only this time it’s showing:
Me lying prone on the couch with my skirt pulled up to my neck was probably not what Carol and Irene expected to see, when they walked in carrying towels and bowls.
The difference between showing and telling is important. Not all writing has to be showing, most writing is about telling the story, but showing is an important tool to use to give my readers a greater insight into the subtleties of a character.
Five things I've learnt about show and tell:
1. There is nothing wrong with telling a story, but I must be careful not to narrate every piece. Readers want to feel involved. By showing what is happening, and letting them experience it, will engage my readers much more.
2. Too much 'telling' will turn my story into a summary.
3. When reading my prose I need to ask myself: am I allowing my readers to get a sense of the action, or am I just telling them what is happening? Do the readers know how my character is feeling, or am I just telling them? Are my characters telling the reader what they are doing? Is there a way I can show any of this?
4. Showing is important, but it is just as important for my readers to know what’s going on in the story, so I need to be able to tell them.
5. For an engaging story it is important to get the mix right.