Carefully polishing my piece for a writing critique, I attempted to picture every detail of a tense scene. Two indigenous boys scavenged through a village ravaged by mudslides, only to encounter unscrupulous men searching for labors to conscript. The boys hid in a half collapsed structure. The large one was strong enough to move rubble, but he had to depend on the small one. The small one was smart enough to cover their tracks, but fearful of burrowing into confined spaces. Of course, I did not tell any of this. All of the tension was shown through description of characters movements, facial expressions and snippets of conversation.
The self-appointed expert in this critique liked to harp on “adding more details” and “showing not telling.” What was his response to my work? “This is confusing, and I cannot figure out what is going on. Can you rewrite this and explain what is happening?” He wanted the events of the story to be told and not shown.
Does any of this sound familiar? When a person says, “show don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? Writing is very abstract in itself, so providing this kind of instruction requires bringing the abstract to a more concrete level. When authors give examples of this kind of writing they often demonstrate a fifty/fifty approach. They intersperse detailed descriptions and realistic conversation with exposition that simply tells the reader what has occurred.
Writers who show more than tell lose the ability to convey subtlety in their work. Often a reader will not comprehend what is occurring when a character shuffles his feet in the dust or makes a gagging noise. For actions to be easily interpreted they have to be dramatic enough for some readers to pick up the meaning. Facial expressions must be exaggerated to ensure that the reader detects the happiness, anger, or fear. However, characters should be able to display subtle emotions, too—anxiety, restlessness or boredom. Showing lets us know what a character does; telling makes us aware of intentions and interior feelings.
A novel that is pure showing, such as La Jalousie by Alain Robbe-Grillet, describes every detail: the light through the blinds, the scent of the lilacs, the indolent movements of the people outside. It takes keen perception to realize that the unnamed viewpoint character who perceives all of this may be imagining part of it. Many readers will simply give up as they are unable to deduce what is occurring.
The majority of readers really want an author to tell them what is happening but include enough description of a scene so that they feel they are present. “Show not tell” should be used for key scenes. However, when a scene seems to drag on and become boring, this may be a sign that you should truncate this information and simply tell the reader what has occurred. Telling takes far fewer words than showing. As you write you have to learn the balance between explaining what is happening and displaying events through description of sensory details.
When unsure, write the scene in question in two manners—one that shows the action, and one that tells what is happening. As you review your writing, choose the one that works best.