Look out, it’s a long post today, but it’s a topic that deserves it. To really get to the heart of show, don’t tell, we have to look at why that’s the rule. What is it supposed to accomplish?
When you “tell” something, you lose an opportunity.
If you say, for example, “She was a proud woman who wouldn’t accept help,” you are giving your reader information. Sure, it says something about the character, but it really doesn’t give you any insight, or make her feel like an actual person. It’s flat. It’s a trait you are just putting out there, rather than making it a part of the story. Try this instead:
She watched as the papers floated to the sidewalk, a prickle of irritation rising. Crouching awkwardly in her too-high heels, she collected the documents, now smeared with dirt and who knows what else. She certainly didn’t want to know what else.
“Can I give you a hand?” said the man standing above her, his face obscured by the glare.
“No,” she said, an edge to her voice. “I’ve got it.”
“At least let me give you a hand up.”
“No,” she said, drawing out the word as she stood, the papers fanned against her chest, “I’ve got it.”
By showing, we have a possible plot point that says something about her as a person. You also may have noticed that I chose to use “irritation” rather than breaking that word down further, which I could do. I could have said:
She watched as the papers floated to the sidewalk, a sharp prickle rising, her jaw clenched.
And now that I have, I think that is better, because it also tells you something about her character. She’s not slightly irritated, she seems angry. Why is she angry?
Don’t ask me, I have no idea. I just met her.
The point is that we’ve taken something that was essentially just a dump of information and transformed it into a more vibrant character and a possible introduction of conflict.
I think of show, don’t tell this way: imagine a suitcase. The outside of the suitcase lists the contents, and that’s fine. Not exciting, but you know what’s inside it.
“Telling” is nothing more than an inventory list.
But what happens when you open the suitcase and unpack the contents? That’s showing. The inventory list might say “three dresses.” OK. There are three dresses in there.
But when you open the case, you might discover a frumpy dress with ruffles made of denim; a maxi dress with a pattern comprised of screaming faces; and Bjork’s unforgettable swan dress. I don’t know about you, but I want to know who that woman is.
Mostly so that I could avoid her, I would think, but that’s neither here nor there.
There are some things you will tell, because there’s no need to go further. In the example above, I didn’t need to “show” the sidewalk. It wasn’t relevant, and everyone knows what a sidewalk looks like.
But if an element is relevant to your story, you should always show it. That doesn’t mean that if your character is haunted by her past (I would think this one would be haunted by her purchase of that swan dress, but that’s me), you have to show her entire past, but give your readers hints about it in the way she behaves. It will strengthen your characters and your story.
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!