By Ross B. Lampert
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest dicta in all of writing, although one prominent writer (Larry Brooks?) growled, “I’m a story teller, not a story shower.”
That, of course, misses the point: we illustrate or exemplify—in other words, show—a character’s emotions or attitudes by telling the reader what they did or how they behaved. Showing applies to inanimate objects as well by describing the effects that object had on the other objects or the people or animals in the scene.
Showing, then, is a specialized form of telling.
The best way to explain this, of course, is not to tell you about these differences but to illustrate them, starting with a couple examples about people.
Telling: Alice felt sick.
Showing: Holding a hand over her mouth, her eyes bugging, Alice dashed into the bathroom and threw up in the sink.
Telling: Bob was happy.
Showing: Grinning, Bob pumped his fist in the air and whooped.
In each case of telling, all we have is a simple declarative sentence. There’s no action, no behavior, no information, really. But in the examples of showing, we can see in our mind’s eye the behavior that illustrates the underlying emotion or physical condition, not that in Alice’s case, we’d really want to.
The same applies to animals.
Telling: The tiger wanted to eat the goat.
Showing: The tiger paced around the goat. The frantic animal bleated, jumped back and forth, and pulled against the rope that tied it to the stake in the ground. The tiger’s eyes never left it as it stalked, its nostrils flaring and closing, flaring and closing.
Poor goat. Kinda gets your heart pounding, doesn’t it? The “telling” example? Not so much.
Natural phenomena should be shown too.
Telling: Wind blew the rain hard against the windows.
Showing: Wind-blown rain roared against the windows, flowing down in sheets that looked like the vertical green wall of a breaker off the coast of Maui, seen from the inside. There was a pause, then another cascade rushed down the pane.
As it happens, most of these examples are negative ones, but showing is by no means limited to bad situations. The reader enjoys happy moments more when they’re shown because she vicariously becomes a part of them. Moments of motion or quiet gain depth when they’re shown.
So as a reviewer, what should you look for in a piece to determine whether the author is telling or showing? Ask these questions:
- Does the author make simple, declarative statements about a condition, emotion, behavior, or attitude? If so, they’re telling.
- Does the author use actions or behaviors to illustrate or demonstrate conditions, emotions, or attitudes? If so, they’re showing.
- Did I have any emotional reaction to the author’s description about a character’s condition, emotion, behavior, or attitude, or an environmental condition? If you didn’t, it’s a good chance the author was telling. If you did, the author was probably showing (unless your reaction was boredom!).
If you find an author telling when they should be showing, discuss with them how they could illustrate whatever it was they told the reader about.
Showing engages the reader, and an engaged reader is one who’ll keep turning the page. That’s what every writer wants.
Your turn: How do you identify when a writer is telling rather than showing?