Show, don't tell is one, if not the most frequently given pieces of writing advice. But what do they mean by this?
The best definition I have for this is in the form of a quote:
Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Do you see the difference?
Showing is when you reveal things about your story and characters or your story world, as you advance your story. With telling, you stop the story in its tracks, kill whatever momentum you had going, and back up like a dump truck to unload a ton of information onto your reader.
Good writing should evoke sensation in the reader – don’t just say “it’s raining,” help the reader experience the storm. Do this by being descriptive and involving the senses. Have them feel the cool, wetness on their skin, smell the ozone in the air, be deafened by the thunder and blinded by a flash of lightning.
Telling: She was afraid of the approaching storm.
Showing: She froze in place as lightning lit up the sky. Her heart pounded in her chest. She choked back a whimper when the flash was followed by a sharp crack of thunder. The moisture laden breeze swept over her sweat dampened skin leaving goose flesh in its wake.
Fiction is all about forging an emotional link between the author and the reader. One of the best ways to do this is by creating vivid images that immerse readers in the world of the fiction — not merely telling readers what’s happening, but showing it to them.
Many writers resort to telling because they believe the reader won't get the point if they don't. Often writers tell, then show, to make sure they get their point across, in effect treating their readers like morons. But the truth is that when you take out the telling, the showing remains. And that's all the reader needs in most cases.
You want your reader invested in the character. You want the reader inside the action. That's the sign of good writing . . . to pull the reader out of his ordinary life and put him in the middle of someplace else. Showing them is an important way to do this. To help you show instead of tell, keep in mind the following:
- Avoid overusing adverbs. Instead, use strong, specific verbs.
- Use the five senses - not just sight but taste, touch, smell, and hearing.
- Don’t simply name feelings, let you characters experience them.
- Use expressive dialogue to show the characters’ emotions and outlook, but don't fall into the trap of overusing dialogue tags.
- Generate emotion through vivid writing and characters’ reactions.
- Use well-placed details to bring scenes to life.
Does this mean all telling is bad? Not at all, telling does have its place. Use it for:
- Slowing things down – a story that’s non-stop action can be exhausting for the reader. Telling, through narrative summary, can give the reader a breather after an extended, action-filled scene. It also varies the story’s rhythm.
- Condensing recurring action – once a scene has been shown and the reader knows what it consists of, it doesn’t need to be stretched out into further scenes. It can be summarized instead. You can also summarize minor scenes that are similar to a key scene that will take place later on.
- Minor characters – if a character doesn’t warrant a full scene, needed information can be delivered without straying unnecessarily from the plot line.
- Transition between scenes - a brief event can smooth the way between bits of action or character interaction, without leaving an illogical gap or a sudden, unintentional jump in time.
The mark of a good writer is the ability to use both showing and telling to their best advantage. A successful story is one that has a balance between the two, and only you, as the writer, can decide how much should be shown, and how much should be told.
I want to see thirst
In the syllables,
In the sound;
Feel through the dark
For the scream.
― Pablo Neruda