Show Don’t Tell This sculpture “shows” a complex story, but “show don’t tell” is not  just great relationship advice.  It is the bread and not butter of writing effectively for audience. But what does it mean and why is it such a good thing to do? “Show don’t tell” is a  short cut  that gets the writer into character Point of View and obligates relaying objective information. From this, the reader discerns. That creates a powerful relationship between the writer and the reader.  Telling is always some kind of narrative voice.  So, why is one good and the other bad?

This sculpture “shows” a complex story, but “show don’t tell” is not  just great relationship advice.  It is the bread and not butter of writing effectively for audience. But what does it mean and why is it such a good thing to do?

“Show don’t tell” is a  short cut  that gets the writer into character Point of View and obligates relaying objective information. From this, the reader discerns. That creates a powerful relationship between the writer and the reader.  Telling is always some kind of narrative voice.  So, why is one good and the other bad?

In writing, the way I see it, everything is a trade off. When you gain one thing you lose something else. In writing grammatically for example, we might lose freedom of expression but we gain reader who understand what we’re writing.  So it is with “show don’t tell.” When we show, and thereby use character POV and objective information, the reader’s experience is closer to the story and more immediate. The reader experiences what happens and draws conclusions. When we “tell” we filter through narrative voice, and the experience, if there is one, is more distant. Telling is a lot easier.  Consider the difference between making a movie and preparing a lecture.  So in showing, we gain difficulty, but we also likely gain readership. If our instinct is toward narrative, then we’ll want to show.  If we want to “tell,” a soapbox does nicely.

Feeling the Difference Between Showing and Telling

When we “show” we leap into an imaginative experience and recreate it for our reader, and when we “tell” we imagine telling someone about that experience. Notice that both require imagination, but of different kinds. When something is shown it is usually shown through a Point of View Character, and when it is “told,” it is told by a narrator. The POV character and the narrator are two different people, even when they are both first person (“I”). OK, as clear as this might seem, the two, narrator and POV character often merge—and for me, generally, the effect of that merger can create confusion and a poor reading experience.

While narrator and POV can merge, the information each relays is different and feels differently to the reader. The POV character relays sensory information and subjective thought in the moment of the story. The narrator “tells” the story from a point outside of the story. Some of the information may appear to be the same, but it is not. One is being “shown” and one is being “told.” One is concrete and has substance and one is abstract because it is memory. Here I’ll write the same sentence twice, but I’d like you to see that they can be “imagined” differently.

Consider:

Experienced: I walked into the store.

Told: I walked into the store.

In the first, I imagine I am the character walking into the store. In the second, I am a narrator looking back on a memory. They are exactly the same in terms of the words, but the feeling of each is different because of how they are imagined. The first is concrete because it has a person in action walking into a store. It has substance. In the second, same words, the sentence is told, and this makes it abstract, a memory. It is insubstantial, empty language.

But how can you tell one from the other? Well that depends on how you imagine it. It depends on context. These sentences can “feel” differently. They can sound different. This is the difference between B-flat and A-sharp. They are written exactly the same but they are not felt the same way.

OK, let’s try it: we’ve all walked into a store. Now imagine telling someone that you walked into the store. Say, “I walked into the store.”

OK, Now think of the store. Think of that specific time and that specific store—it was Tuesday, for example, at 9am. The doors were locked and then a woman in a blue dress unlocked the doors. A lot of people were waiting—they looked a certain way and they crowed the doors. Then you walked in, brushing against someone on the way. Think of yourself in your body there, outside and then walking inside. Say, “I walked into the store.”

You might see that the second requires a much greater imaginative commitment. You have to really go back to that place. You think of the place in concrete terms—with real people and in real time.

Say each of the above sentences until you can feel the difference. Once you have, you understand the difference between these two imaginative experiences, one of telling and one of showing. In one, you’ve transitioned into imaginative experience and you walk into the store. In the other, you’ve remained safely in the present, telling. Why we “show and don’t tell” is that we want to bring our reader into the “imagined experience.” This is one of the primary reasons a reader reads, to imagine something and to have an experience—and dynamic experience is more interesting than static, and that is the difference for the reader.

“Show don’t tell” is short-cut advice toward creating rich imaginative experience for the reader. It is a way to understand the technique, a bridge, but it is not the music of imagination, which is really what we’re after. The way we handle the imaginative experience ourselves—the ways we bring ourselves to rich imagination—and then chronicle that on the page, this is finesse, and this is what great writers are really, really good at.

The issue, however, is not that telling or showing are either good or bad, but exactly what kind of experience do we want to create for our reader—where are they, imaginatively, at any given time and why do we want them there? Do we want them in the story or out of it? When we understand that the reader’s static position of listening in “telling” is less interesting for them than the “active” participation they feel in “showing” then we understand why readers get frustrated with being told too much. “Telling” saves time, but if our reader is thirsting for experience (which I hope they are), they’ll put your book down and go live.

At the same time, we want more than simply superficial experience. If that is all we want, we can go about our business, right? In reading, we want depth. We want insight. We want newness and nuance. We are choosing to spend time with art. So sometimes “telling” works to this advantage.

And the third thing to keep in mind is that we don’t want to create a monotonous reading experience—so better to use all our tools rather than just one.