It’s a phrase every writer has heard enough times to fill a telephone book. Remember telephone books? No? Well, they were big with a lot of words.
Show, don’t tell.
Great. But what does it mean, exactly? Because the reality is that you can’t show literally everything. If you did show absolutely everything, then we’re back to the telephone book again.
You need to decide what is essential to your story, and that is what you show. The maxim applies to character, to plot, to environment, to really every aspect of your work. For example, describing the contents of a room is telling; having a character fiddle with an important object is showing.
Word choice also comes into play. There are words in the English language that are very economical, and say exactly what they mean. That is good. But when it comes to something a character is doing, for example, that is not as good. It puts the reader on the tightly closed outside of the moment instead of on the inside. Saying “Jane fidgeted,” is fine. “Jane shifted in her seat, her fingertips drumming together,” paints a more detailed picture. “Jane twirled her hair around her finger,” paints a different one.
Show, don’t tell isn’t simply a convention. It’s not something designed to make the work of writing harder, though sometimes, if we’re all being honest, it does. In truth, it’s a deceptively simple road map for creating a world and people who will feel real to readers and draw them inside.
Check out my full-length novels, Her Cousin Much Removed, The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!