Spend any time around writers, and you will surely hear the sage but cryptic advice, "Show, don't tell." But what the heck does it mean, and why do people keep saying it? Is it a hard and fast rule, or are there times you should and should not follow it?
First off, what is it? Here's a simple example:
In both cases, we know Gwen was embarassed. The first version comes straight out and tells us, while the second version shows us through her reactions.
"But wait," you say. "Isn't the second one telling us she is blushing, and that she is looking at her hands?" Yes, but you have to think in terms of the real message being conveyed. In this case, Gwen's emotional state is the message.
In this example, showing takes more words. On the other hand, her reaction reveals more than simple embarassment. It implies a bashful response, probably to a compliment, as opposed to humiliation or some other form or embarassment. It's a richer expression of her emotional state. If you really told what her emotion is, it would probably require considerably more words than the showing.
Many people assume that showing requires more words than telling. It may be true in the simplest examples, but showing is often much more concise when the message is complex or ambiguous. Emotions and sensations are often complicated, with conflicting components.
Consider point of view. When we watch two people having a quiet conversation in a restaurant, we can't read their thoughts and tap into their nerve impulses. But we can see if one person is angry, or afraid, or distressd. How do we know? By the body languiage, actions like crying or a raised or trembling voice, all the elements you would write when showing those feelings. By showing in your writing instead of telling, you help preserve the point of view.
Showing isn't limited to character moods and feelings though. You can also use it to describe setting. For example, you could describe a street as cold and windy, or you can show it though a character's reaction to it, pulling his coat tight and leaning forward to protect his face from windblown ice crystals.
Showing can help you experience the setting better than telling, because you know what such a day feels like from your own experiences.
But that doesn't mean you should never tell instead of showing. Sometimes simply saying:
is a completely adequate and concise description, for instance after he walked five miles to town from his broken-down car. There's nothing more to gain by showing him shuffling into town, slumping down onto a park bench, and taking his shoes off to check his feet for blisters.
Showing is often more expressive, but it can take more thought to do it well, and sometimes it just isn't the best choice anyway. So although it's always good advice to consider showing vs, telling, it isn't the answer in every situation.
Good writing will judiciously mix them. Show and tell.
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