How many times have you heard the phrase “show, don’t tell?” Personally, I’ve lost count. Now, how many times have you heard it explained? I can count on one hand how often I’ve heard that. And the explanations I got never really clicked for me, so I went in search of my own answer. After much reading, researching, and deliberating, I discovered that it’s actually quite simple:
Showing is action-based. Telling is not.
Okay then, what is action? A easy way to answer that is to ask another question: what’s a verb? A verb is a word that expresses action. Therefore, showing is expressed when the verb is the focus. Let’s look at some examples.
A: James was a nerdy teacher's pet.
B: James was always the first to arrive for math. He settled into his front-row seat, arranging everything he'd need for class - math book in the upper right hand corner, notebook opened to a clean sheet and labeled with today's date, mechanical pencil in hand, and a spare pencil in the desk's pencil tray. Next, he pulled a two-pence coin from his pocket, then polished the surface with a corner of his t-shirt until it glinted in the afternoon sunlight. James grinned. Mrs. Sparks would be thrilled to add it to her collection.
The first is obviously telling. But what about the second? That first sentence is telling, yes, but what about the rest? James is doing something – settling in to his seat, arranging his materials, and polishing a coin meant as a gift for his teacher. These actions show us his personality, how he pays attention to detail, and how conscious he is of his teacher’s interests. To show James always arriving first for math could get tedious, even boring, so mixing this tiny bit of telling with showing can illustrate the goal of showing the reader how he’s a nerdy teacher’s pet.
Which brings me to my next point: how do you convert telling to showing? The key word here is “how.” How is James a nerdy teacher’s pet? What does he do that makes us think of him this way? He’s meticulous, he’s prepared, and he has a backup pencil. What kind of kid has a backup pencil? The kind that actually cares about taking notes. Let’s look at some more examples of telling.
#1: Tammy didn’t like Joey. He always did things like pull her hair or trip her on the school bus.
This is pretty straight forward. The reader is told about how Tammy feels about Joey, because of things that he’s done to her. The red flag here is “things that he’s done to her.” Show us these things, then we will see Tammy react. In both cases, Tammy and Joey will be doing something: Joey tormenting Tammy, and Tammy reacting with emotion. Bonus: these actions will also show us more about the character’s personalities. This rounds them out, elicits sympathy, and ends up making the whole story more interesting.
#2: The castle was dark and creepy.
This is a little harder, because it’s an inanimate object. The most common response writers have is to create an eerie and vivid description of the castle. That’s all fine and dandy, except...description is another form of telling. I’m not saying that description is a bad thing, but it’s not showing. I think many people get showing confused with vivid description.
To really turn this sentence into showing, you must find a way to weave in some action. And here’s an easy way to do this: use your characters. After all, who is perceiving this castle as dark and creepy? They are! Show us the castle through them, and you’ll find an easier way to introduce action. Especially since people can actually do things, while castles pretty much just sit there.
#3: Dinah baked a cake.
This is very tricky, because it’s telling in disguise. Why? Well, look at the sentence. Dinah is performing an action (baked). By my earlier definition, that should mean this is showing, right? Not exactly. The steps involved in baking a cake are too many to cram into one sentence. Plus, this is a golden opportunity to show us Dinah’s character. How does she bake the cake? Does she hum and dance around the kitchen? Does she slam the pans around and snap at anyone who gets to close? Does she bake elaborate cakes? Or are her culinary skills summed up by a burned stack of toast? There are so many opportunities for details here that will both make the scene more interesting, as well as round out her character.
“Showing” is an aspect of writing that infiltrates everything. It affects pacing, description, characterization, active vs. passive word choice, dialog...everything. But if you keep in mind that showing is simply action, then you can keep your characters doing something. It’ll keep your story moving forward, your reader involved, and it’ll be more fun to write. Harder, but more fun.