Fiction writing is plagued with scores of advice excerpted out of their context and misinterpreted by well-meaning authors hoping to hone their skills. Among this advice, “show, don’t tell” is one of the most prevalent. Many writers misinterpret this advice as meaning one should always be showing and never telling. If the diluted phrase were to be expanded into one that is clear in it’s meaning, we might say “distinguish between information best conveyed through scene rather than exposition.” That would be quite a mouthful, and so we don’t say it. It is, however, the proper read on the common phrase. The best question an author can ask themselves is then “what’s the right balance between showing and telling?” (Maass 2). This has very much to do with the focus and intent of a particular passage or detail. In that regard, Janet Burroway explains that the “vitality of understanding” is gained through “felt experience” (22). Those experiences can only be transmitted to the reader via scene, and it’s the writer’s duty to determine which emotions are worthy of being distilled through the development of scene rather than the straightforwardness of telling. Donald Maass observes that “most [authors] lean more in one direction or the other” but that “most agree that showing is better than telling, in general” (2; emphasis mine). The “in general” is reiterative of the balance writers must strike between the two, the awareness of when one method better serves the story than the other.Author and creative writing professor Peter Selgin begins to dissect the issue of timing in the show versus tell conundrum in expressing that “a fiction writer’s first job is to create experience” (181). These experiences tether the reader to a story via emotional stake and intellectual engagement. Both drive the success of a story as “emotional impact is….as fundamental to a novel’s purpose and structure as its plot” (Maass 4).
Issues in show versus tell appear most frequently when writers wish to characterize the players in their story. They think to themselves “how will the reader know that my protagonist is miserly if I don’t explicitly offer the detail?” How indeed. How will the reader know that the protagonist is compassionate or strong or tall? It seldom does much good to exposit the qualities of a character outright. Characters in fiction are people in and of themselves with lived experiences in the stories in which they appear, no different from a stranger you meet in the real world—yet no stranger has ever approached you and said upon introduction “I don’t tip at restaurants, but I would do anything for the people I care about especially if it provides an opportunity to flaunt my strength, unless that favor involves walking through a door without ducking because I’m far too tall for that.” Never. The benefits of showing rather than telling are easily demonstrated as they pertain to character description, which the amateur writer will pile on with adjective. This has to do with reader perceptions of adjectives, which “are opinions, not descriptions or facts, to be treated as we treat most opinions, with some measure of skepticism if not outright distrust” (Selgin 182). Consider the following passage.
When I first met her, it was clear that Teresa was a terrible person, by and large. Everything she did brought ruin to others, but she didn’t care a lick about that as long as she got what she wanted. Her ego filled every room she walked into and lingered long after she left. That’s what makes it so frustrating that she’s here with me now, bawling her eyes out about how her boyfriend dumped her.
While the narrator may very well believe every word of this, the reader lacks any context or experience with Teresa to justify their belief in these assertions. Maybe Teresa is terrible, but this example of telling requires the reader to trust the narrator in absence of evidence. They can’t be as invested in disdaining Teresa as the protagonist is because they haven’t shared that experience. And because the protagonist is the lens through which the reader’s perception of the story and its characters is colored, there is a deficit in engagement. Moreover, the writer of such a paragraph has insulted the reader’s intelligence in presupposing that the reader would be otherwise incapable of discerning these qualities in Teresa on their own. Compare it to the same version of the passage that relies instead on showing via scene.
I first met Teresa at a coffee shop. She pushed her way through the crowd, ignoring every protest, right up to the counter where she slammed her coffee down. “It’s cold,” she said and pulled a crumpled receipt from her pocket. “I want a new one or a refund.” When the barista reasoned that Teresa had left the coffeeshop to take a phone call after initially sitting down with her drink, Teresa’s nostrils flared. She tossed the coffee on the floor with such dramatic flourish, anyone might have mistaken her for an actor and the entire situation for a hidden-camera television program. The barista shuddered, her face reddening, and not even the consolation of the surrounding crowd could mitigate her crying. On her way out of the coffeeshop, Teresa bumped passed me, muttering something about how she ought to be treated better. That’s what I think about on days like today, when she’s bawling her eyes out about her most recent failed relationship.
This passage is longer by necessity but more successfully integrates the reader into the experience of who Teresa is. Thus, the reader is better able to sympathize with the protagonist’s position without needing to call into question the validity of their appraisal of Teresa. Because this moment is critical to the reader’s understanding of Teresa and the emotional connection they are to forge with the protagonist, showing it via scene works more effectively then telling.
So then what are the moments where telling becomes the preferred method? Simply put, whenever the events that are unfolding aren’t significant to the primary characters’ development or the beats of the story. If nothing is happening to develop either the character or plot in a meaningful way, the information is best suited to telling. Or if a lengthy stretch of events must be conveyed to provide context for a larger, more significant issue of character/plot, a writer might find themselves leaning toward telling. In any case, before a writer can properly apply the principle of “show, don’t tell,” they must first have an understanding of when each approach will best serve the story.
Maass, Donald. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Cincinnati, Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.
Selgin, Peter. Your First Page: First pages and what they tell us about the pages that follow them. Peterborough, Broadview Press, 2019.