Rules of showing and telling when writing
The most exciting thing for a kid walking into a classroom on show-and-tell day isn’t to tell the rest of the kids about their pet ferret. Right? It’s the exhilaration of saying, “See! Look what I have!”
Writers need this same mindset. When you’re showing your readers a scene, it’s not near as engaging to tell them what they need to think, see, feel, and know. What makes them want to read is what you show them—what you give them. It’s not enough to say someone is sad, but it’s so much more to say their face stained with black tears that washed over flushed cheeks. It’s even more to say they didn’t move, their eyes didn’t wander, but they instead kept their gaze on the terrible sight of his arm being twisted over his head until the snap announced its removal.
Morbid and gross. I know. But, I typed the first thing that came to mind and couldn’t make myself backspace or else I’d forget what I wanted to say next. Anyway, where was I?
What is ‘show don’t tell’?
I was recently asked to write a poem about a snack, and the one I chose was a peanut butter cracker. By telling you what I wrote about, I did just that—told you what I wrote about. A peanut butter cracker. To expand, I can say it was orange with peanut butter in it, and I can also say there were six crackers in one package.
That’s not showing.
Now, I can also tell you how loud the crunch was when I chewed it, or how the peanut butter glistened beneath the light unlike the oil on the cracker, which spread a film on my fingertips that I transferred to my pencil when I finally grabbed it to write.
That’s showing, or some weird version of it that made the cracker sound unappealing.
You can grab any object and tell me what it is, what it does, or why you have it. But, that’s not showing. What does it look like? How does it feel when you hold it, hear it? Why is it there? Who gave it to you? There are many questions that answer the purpose of a(n) object/feeling/idea/action. Answer those questions.
So, does that mean I never tell again?
No! In fact, think of showing and telling as two different flavors. Think of telling as salty and showing as sweet. Together, they make an amazing little snack (if you like sweet-and-salty snacks. If not, choose two different flavor collaborations you enjoy). If you have too much sweet, it’s enjoyable if it’s the right snack, but too much salty can ruin any snack no matter what the snack is (again, this is preference in regard to snack choice, but hopefully you get the point).
The key is balance. A book I recently started reading, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, has a lot of showing in it. So much so, that you truly have to think to understand the events. Because this book is about someone who doesn’t necessarily understand surrounding events, the idea of showing is fantastic, which explains why this is such a famous work of his. He executes the idea of “showing” brilliantly because there really isn’t any telling at all (or, at least not in the first chapter since that’s all I’ve read so far).
You have to analyze your piece. What is the strongest attribute: emotion, imagery, theme, character development, plot?
Pick one or a few. Develop it/them. If you can show your reader what’s happening, do that. If not, don’t be afraid to tell us. Anyone who says “show, show, never tell” is working too hard to build a house with wood but no nails. Sometimes, this is possible (if you’ve ever built a house with Lincoln Logs, it is, so it’s truly not impossible to write without telling; again, it’s preference), but it’s not always the case. For the most part, it isn’t the case.
When can I tell?
This really depends on your book, your plot, your characters, etc. Typically, things you can simply summarize and spill to the reader include:
- scenes that transition to bigger scenes
- when you’re writing as the narrator (third person omniscient has a lot of telling, and Ernest Hemingway has an incredible combination of showing and telling, as does John Steinbeck)
- supplying information that isn’t relevant to the character’s current situation but is relevant to the current scene
- flashbacks as necessary for the character or plot
- events that happened prior to the current scene
Again, it depends on what you’re writing. Don’t show me what the moon looks like as the night’s diamond on a black canvas if the character isn’t even looking at it. Your reader doesn’t need to know how hard your character’s heart is pumping, the veins protruding from his head and beads of sweat glistening on his forehead if he’s not about to explode with fury, possibly to kill someone if he looks like that.
If it’s quick irritation, that’s all it needs. If it’s a passing glance, we don’t need to know everything that sat on the table. If the past isn’t incredibly important, first consider if it needs to be shared and if so, how much needs to be shared?
When you’re telling, what needs to be told that doesn’t need extensive description? Does it really need to be there? If so, that’s fine and don’t think otherwise. Telling is okay. In fact, it’s great. In moderation.
Then how do I show?
This is the hard part, not because showing is hard but because it’s not how our direct thoughts occur. You won’t pass a boy hanging on to his dad’s leg and think, “The boy curled around his dad’s leg like a parasite clinging to its host.” You’ll think, “That kid is holding on to his dad’s leg.” Simple. But, the former shows us how tightly he’s hanging on, as well as the form his body might have around his dad’s leg. Holding on to something is ambiguous in meaning because it doesn’t portray one, single thing . . . not completely. So, this is where showing comes in. When you reach a scene or a spot with inner dialogue, you have the opportunity to show your reader what the character, or even the narrator, sees.
Show when you want to expand on a scene or description of a character. Just so you know, this isn’t the right way to show:
He had brown hair, which brought out his amber eyes and plump lips. He wore a black jacket with a yellow shirt underneath and his hands hid in his pockets.
In third person omniscient, descriptions like this are fine and you can get away with them; however, other perspectives require depth because you’re in a character’s head. You’re not just looking at the outside, but also at the inside. If a character is relevant, the above description isn’t good enough. Not always.
His eyes blazed an amber that captivated her without promise of release, and when she forced herself to break from his gaze, she found herself lingering on the plump lips that tempted her to draw closer.
You have emotion, visual, and depth. Don’t let description be your enemy, but your ally. You can use it. It doesn’t matter that he has brown hair right now. Save it for later. Who cares what color his jacket is if it’s not important right now? Let your reader imagine it. We don’t need to know his exact height or weight if he’s not about to step on a scale or get measured for a roller coaster ride.
To show, you must feel, see, think, hear, smell, and taste.
Use your senses. That’s the key. Develop a scene with your senses. Apple pie doesn’t make my mouth water unless you explain the sweet smell and aroma of cinnamon drifting in the air. I don’t want to cry until the little girl screams her brother’s name when he falls to the ground, reaching for her as a last fearful tear falls from his eye. (This would take more development.) I don’t love a landscape until the character does and its beauty is described where I can imagine it. Telling me something is beautiful is like me telling you that horses are the most amazing animals in existence.
Use your senses. Use your words. Pick a sentence and think about what senses you can use to improve it. Showing will use more words. That’s okay. Don’t worry. It’s going to happen. Your goal is to make the world, the character, the scene, and everything else a real thing. That’s why people read. We want to live another life. Help us do that.
If you can ask “how?” or even “why?” you might be telling.
It rained and it was windy. Cheryl hated the rain. She didn’t want to come, but her family forced her to go on this “vacation,” and now it was raining.
How did the rain sound? The wind? Why did Cheryl hate the rain? Why didn’t she want to come? I don’t know what any of this feels like. It’s similar to saying, “‘What do you want?’ he asked angrily.” What does angrily look like? What does his kind of anger look like? Everyone looks and sounds different when they’re angry, so show me what that’s like.
The rain battered the windows, following the wind that screamed through the cracks in the wooden cabin Cheryl was forced into for the weekend. Each white slit revealed a possible opening for mice to creep in, and she waited to discover the first set of eyes so she could scream, waking the snoring people who she hoped would soon pay for bringing her on what they called “vacation.” It had rained for two days now, and it only seemed to rain harder every hour. By now, they should be swimming above the couch, or what remained of it, and the flaking linoleum on the countertops should be swimming with them, their molded surfaces only waiting to be released from their prison.
Which parts were shown and which were told? Obviously, this girl doesn’t want to be there and she probably doesn’t like rain. Did I once say either of those things? Did I have to? What about the rain? I told you how long it had been raining. I could have showed you and used a paragraph of description to do so, but what good would it do? From all of it, you would learn nothing about the character or the scene other than what had already happened, and you wouldn’t benefit as a reader. Sure, I can say “she hated the rain,” but the description allows you to feel what she feels, to hate what she hates—or at least understand why she hates it. I’m sure you could even one-up me on this scene and write one better, but that’s up to you. That’s the fun part. Write it out. Figure out what’s important. Use your senses. Use your images. Use your characters. And write better now, then write even better tomorrow.