It's often quoted as "Show, don't tell" because, on the whole, beginner writers do too much telling when they should be showing. But of course it's not nearly as simple as that. Both have their value; the key is to understand their respective strengths, and use each to your story's best advantage. Mind you, like everything in writing, it isn't even binary, but a spectrum, from the telliest tell, to the showiest show.
SHOWING is for making the reader feel they're in there: feel as in smell, touch, see, hear, believe the actual experience of the characters. As John Gardner says, it's by being convincing in the reality and detail of how we evoke our imagined world - by what the characters do and say - that we persuade the reader to read the story we're telling as if it really happened, even though we all know it didn't. That means working with the immediate physical and emotional actions and experience of the characters: your rage beating in your ears, the wind whipping your cheeks, a beggar clutching at your coat. The more I talk about Showing, the more I call it evoking.
TELLING is for covering the ground, when you need to, as a narrator (whether the narrator is a character, or an implied, external narrator in a third person narrative). It's supplying information: the storyteller saying "Once upon a time", or "A volunteer army was gathered together", or "The mountains were covered in fine, volcanic ash". So it's a little more removed from the immediate experience of the moment. The more I talk about Telling, the more I call it informing.
Telling/informing: The temperature had fallen overnight and the heavy frost reflected the sun's rays brightly.
Showing/evoking: The morning air was bitter ice in her nose and mouth, and dazzling frost lay on every bud and branch.
Telling/informing: The taller man was a carpenter, complete with the tools of his trade.
Showing/evoking: A saw and hammer dangled from his belt and an adze was hooked into it, one thumbnail was black, and when he bowed she saw several long wood-shavings caught in his curly hair.
Telling/informing: They stood close and wrapped their arms round each other in a passionate embrace, so that she became aware that he had been riding, and then that he was as nervous as she was.
Showing/evoking: They gripped each other and the tweed of his jacket was rough under her cheek. His hand came up to stroke her hair; she smelled leather and horses on the skin of his wrist. He was trembling.
Note that though showing is often a bit longer than telling the same thing (and I explored that issue here), it isn't here, and it needn't be. There is also a good case for sometimes leaving things more open and un-particularised, for the reader to read their own imagined stuff into; I explored that question here. But, usually, you're trying to make the world and the experience of the characters come alive for us, with the vivid, immediate scratch-and-sniff of life: "convincing in the reality and detail". This is most important, of course, at the important moments of change in a story, the crucial events in the characters' journey through the plot; they, above all, must live for us as vividly as possible, by being fully embodied - fully evoked:
Telling/informing: James was tall and attractive to women, being so charming to them that they fell for him immediately and never guessed how little he cared for them.
Showing/evoking: Show us how James stands at the bar, give us what he says, show us Anna looking up into his face and seeing love in his smile... and then show us what James says, in the gents toilet, about making sure this girl - "What's her name? Anna?" - doesn't discover his address.
Dialogue is basically always Showing - it is actual action - although do be careful that a) the character's voice is right for who they are and the way they talk is characteristic, and b) you don't use dialogue as a way of stuffing in slabs of Tell-ing which just happens to have "" round it.
It can help a lot to think in terms of psychic distance, which I've also blogged about here. For now, just have a look at Gardner's range of psychic distances, and see how they're points on the spectrum from the telliest tell, to the showiest show:
- It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway into a snowstorm.
- Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
- Henry hated snowstorms.
- God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
- Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul.
See how Tell is brilliant at - well - telling us exactly where we are, and what's going on. And Show is brilliant at evoking the physical and emotional experience of the character, although not at informing us about where and who they (and so we) are. You need both. As an exercise in this stuff, pick two or three sentences from the middle of a story you're trying to write, and re-write them from each of the five distances Gardener suggests.
The show-don't-tell suggestion is also at the root of the much misunderstood command to avoid adjectives and adverbs. If you tell us a house is imposing and a character approaches nervously and wearily, it's not nearly as vivid as if you give us her experience of the house, using words which embody that moment. She has to crane her neck to see the roof, and the stone eagles look down their noses at her as she climbs on and on up the steps until her legs are aching. Embodying the effect of the setting on a character-in-action makes our bodies feel it too, because the mind doesn't know the difference between an imagined thing and a real one. What does "imposing" feel/look like? What does "approaching nervously" actually look like? It informs us what the effect is, but it doesn't evoke the character's experience. But I know what craning my neck feels like, and walking up steps that seem to go on forever.
And Showing/evoking gives you another advantage. In her point of view, the eagles are looking down their noses at her: the evocation of their posture is filtered through her perception. So we are given the physical experience, and her emotional experience at the same time. And because we're aware that it's her emotion, we know it might not be the whole story (someone else might see the eagles as nodding in friendly welcome, a third person wonder which species they're supposed to be) and our sense of her character, and her subjective experience, is heightened.
A subset of the issue of Telling, and adverbs, is speech tags (which I blogged about in more detail here). Don't Inform us that "he shouted furiously", evoke for us the furious words and actions, so that the fury is evoked in the reader too. Don't inform us "she said jokingly" or "she joked", write the joke and trust the reader to know it is one. If the speech really could be taken a different way from how you intend, then show us its effect on the speaker (he's taken aback by the fury that's burst out of himself?) or the other characters. Indeed, show us the effect of the joke anyway, as that's really what's interesting in the scene: she tells a joke, she waits for the laugh, he smiles, Granny snorts in disapproval. Even less successful, usually, are speech tags which comment on the speech, i.e. which Tell us how to take what's said: "he laughed ingenuously" "she whispered unhelpfully". If in doubt, stick to "said", which is invisible, with "shouted" "cried" etc. when you really need to indicate volume.
But don't be put off Telling. Telling is for covering the ground when you need to, and it's very valuable. And you can still colour it with a character's voice and point of view - make it Show-y - even when you are covering the ground.
Bad Telling: The weather in the months of November and December was inclement, as she saw every time she looked up from her day's work. The work made good progress, on the whole, but the horses suffered from the wet weather. She waited for him to get in contact with her, but he didn't, and as Christmas approached she had almost managed to persuade herself to give up hope that he would ever contact her. She had decided that she would nonetheless celebrate the season by decorating the Christmas tree, when she finally heard her mobile make the sound which indicated that someone was trying to get in contact with her.
Good Telling: November became December and the tweed on the loom grew steadily, while under her window the horses stood with their heads hanging in the rain. And still he didn't ring. By Christmas she had begun to give up hope. But she decided to get a tree anyway, and she was trying to get the first bauble to hang straight when her phone bleeped.
Character's Telling: November it rained - poured - buckets, on and on and on. It felt like one long wet weekend, and the horses stood miserably in the field, and I got on with the tweed. I know it always rains in the autumn but this time it felt as if it was raining on me personally, just as my phone was refusing to ring out of spite. It rained all through December, too, and even opening the box of Christmas decorations didn't make me feel better. And then my phone bleeped...
Notice that because I'm Telling, the narrative doesn't get right close in - the psychic distance is hovering around the 2-3 mark, and perhaps 3 for the Character's Telling. But it is still specific: it covers the ground, but it doesn't generalise about numbers of months and inclement weather and celebrating the season. Everything is embodied in physical, tangible, imaginable things: time is embodied in the tweed growing, her mood in the depressed-looking horses in the rain, the gradual erosion of hope in the phone not ringing while the tweed grows.There's even an active verb in "became", despite the abstractness of the idea of months. And although Character's Telling does use Tell-y things - "always rains" "didn't make me feel better" - again, the fact that they're a product of the character's voice and point of view makes them more alive.
And when she answers the phone, we'd go into full Show of character-in-action: what's said, done, felt, thought. As with the earlier example of Anna falling in love, generally speaking, the more crucial the scene - the characters-in-action, the setting - the more full-on showing you'll be doing. Almost all of your big scenes will probably happen in real time, because these are the crucial moments of change, conflict, decision and experience, and they need and deserve to be evoked as fully and vividly as possible. It's like a train: Showing is the compartments and carriages where it all happens, Telling is the good, strong, flexible couplings that lead from one carriage to the next. Mind you, there is often a case for compressing some bits of an important scene: there are often things we need to know happened - moments when we need to sense the shape of the scene without the blow-by-blow details - and I explored that here.
Especially at the beginning of a novel, the balance between showing and telling can be very tricky to get right, because on the one hand you need to draw the reader as quickly as possible into the characters' lives and feelings and get us to care about them, and so want to stick around and find out more. On the other hand, we need to know a certain amount of what and where and why, again, if we're to care about them enough to keep reading. Going back to psychic distance, if you start at 1, then you'd better draw us closer into Henry's world quickly. If you start at 5, you've got some explaining to do...
And one final point. There is always scope for what you might call the fable-like story, or the tale; the kind which is very much told by a storyteller, and the narrator's voice is ever-present. The archetypal story of this kind is the fairy tale, which is pretty much all Tell. In this kind of writing the voice of the storyteller is even more critical than it is in any other writing: to make up for the distancing effect of the narrator keeping us with them and not the characters, the narrator and what they're saying must be extra-engaging in itself. But if you read the great modern exponents of the tale - Angela Carter comes to mind - you'll see that even with a very tell-y narrative, a very present narrator, the physical and emotional experience of the world we're watching is extraordinarily vivid. That's what Showing is all about - and you'll be Telling at the same time.