I was surprised, as a writer with nearly four decades of experience under my belt, to learn during my MA program, mostly through discussion and reading that creative writing programs are often peddling some BAD writing advice to their students. And this same bad writing advice is repeatedly offered as legitimate critique in all writing mediums.
You know you've heard it before. The infamous and chronically over-rated: Show, don't tell.
So, what do people mean when they say this? And why is it important for writers to understand this concept?
What it means to "show" the reader.
Showing a reader a scene, often means investing the reader in the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) that the protagonist is using to experience a scene. It's inspiring and appealing to the reader to invest the same level of emotion and sensation in the imagined experience as the protagonist. It engages a readers empathy muscles. This is an important feature of writing, to be sure. Many scenes are often heightened by just sprinkling in a few sensory details and descriptions.
For Example: Jane edged her toe across the threshold leading into her new seventh grade homeroom, but hesitated to enter. The drab colors of the room and the sterility of the desks made her stomach clench as bile climbed her throat. She swallowed back the acid on her tongue with a sense of dread. She missed the bright colors of Mrs. DeSouza's classroom, paneled with rainbows and motivational posters. This room lacked any kind of sparkle or personality. It seemed almost designed, with it's traffic jam of desks and chairs, to trip someone up. How long before she made a spectacle of herself?
It wouldn't be long now. She was certain everyone around her could smell the acrid sweat clinging to her shirt. She tugged on the straps of her backpack and chewed the soft inside of her cheek in contemplation. What if she tripped on her way to her desk? What if she accidentally brushed too close to someone's papers and they scattered everywhere? She only had one chance to make a first impression here and there were so many opportunities to mess this up. The school bell rang on the wall near her head, startling her out of her reverie. Here we go, she thought. It's now or never. Consequences be damned.
By touching lightly on many sensory details and diving closely into the mindset of the protagonist, the writer has fully activated the empathy engine in the reader. "Showing" boosts empathy, and that's one of the more common ways that a reader begins to full immerse themselves in the world a writer has created.
What it means to "tell" the reader.
That's when an author is imparting information, usually crucial and important data that the reader needs to know in order to understand the context of the scene, or properly parse out what's happening on the page. It often sits at one level of remove from the reader, as it relays important details, but doesn't allow the reader to fully invest themselves in a scene.
For Example: Jane walked into her seventh grade classroom. It was the first day at a new school and she was nervous. She missed the comforting sights of her colorful elementary school classroom. She felt sick to her stomach and was sweating profusely underneath her jacket. She paused at the door, worried she might trip or crash into someone on the way to her desk and embarrass herself in front of everyone. She heard the sound of the school bell ringing, and realized she couldn't wait any longer to enter. She had to take her seat.
The reader is still accessing all the most important and crucial details of the scene, but we feel somewhat removed from the situation. We can't fully invest ourselves in the character. We can sympathize with her plight (many folks have been nervous on their first day at a new school), but we're not yet fully walking in her shoes. Telling is writing shorthand, and it does work on some level. It's crucial to use this tool to relay data that is not critical for readers to "experience." It's often the way that writers move the story along to get to the next scene or chapter or bit of critical dialogue.
What does it mean to "show AND tell" then?
When writers receive feedback about their work, claiming that they were "telling" instead of "showing" that often makes them feel inadequate or that somehow, "telling" is to be avoided at all costs. All "show" all the time, right?
No. Not at all. All writers should be doing some combination of the two. Showing AND telling, in order to give the reader the fully immersive experience that they so desire.
The combination of these two is most easily noted in journalism feature writing. Journalists will start out a feature story, hooking the readers in, by "showing" them a scene. When a journalist interviews a celebrity at their sprawling mansion -- they might describe the sights, the sounds, the feel, and the smells of the estate. Or in a sports article, they might "set the scene" by describing the pitcher on the mound, about to throw the most important ball of their life (the sting of sweat in their eyes, the smell of freshly cut grass, the gritty taste of dust in their mouth, the glare of the spotlights, etc). But then, in the next few paragraphs, they bust into the "telling" aspect of the story. They give you the facts and data, the logistics you need to understand WHY this scene is so important and crucial.
The bias against "telling" is similar to the constant derision of exposition. The reader NEEDS exposition in order to understand the plot and narrative. Do they need all of it at once in a large chunk at the beginning of the book, or at the end? Nope. Exposition works best when it's sprinkled in and woven throughout the text, usually in a way that compels the reader to keep turning the page because they just NEED to know what happens.
Does the reader need to be CONSTANTLY experiencing all five senses at once and accessing all information only via being "shown" rather than told. Also, no. You can "over show" just as easily as you can jam excessive amounts of exposition or scenic description or bantering dialogue into your writing.
Think of "show AND tell" in the same way that good writers know to vary sentence length and structure. Readers crave variety. We like short sentences juxtaposed against long ones. We like over-description to set a crucial scene paired with description that provides just enough detail to move us on to something more important.
"Showing" and "exposition" are often the worst enemies of another major element at play in writing (especially books): pacing. Books rely on pacing to keep readers engaged. Sure, we love a good flashback and a strong immersion experience (especially in an action scene fraught with peril), but we also need time to cool down. "Showing AND telling" is a way to respect the reader, and serve the pace of a story, without bogging it down in needless details or immersion that feels good, but goes nowhere.
How do you "show" when you've already "told?"
The best part about writing is that you can always fix it and make it better. To boost your writing (or even to add to particular scenes where you really want to punch things up), you should review your crucial scenes for the use of the five senses. It's really THAT simple. And of course, the sixth sense is not to be overlooked either. Characters in your book SHOULD have an awareness of themselves. Being allowed into a character's internal world, where they are reacting in thought to the scene is also a crucial element of showing. Characters have things to say when big stuff is happening to them.
Writing Exercise: If you're getting the constant feedback that you're "telling" more than "showing" then grab your favorite scene and inject sensory detail. Add all five senses (plus a bonus sixth sense) to the scene, just for funsies. Too much? Scale it back. Not enough? Get internal with your characters.
How do you "tell" instead of "show?"
The biggest indicator that you're over-relying on telling is by doing a simple search for the following terms: is, was, are, were, have, had. For example: Jane was nervous. She was sweating profusely. She had to take her seat. The more you can eliminate those terms in your writing and pepper in colorful verbs instead, the more enjoyable it will be to read. It will evoke more emotion in the reader. Those terms are functional, to be sure. But they are also lifeless and dead to a reader on the page, a simple means to get from one part of the sentence to the next.
Another important note: "Telling" can also over-use key sensory words in an attempt to seem more like "showing."
Writing Exercise: If you're still worried about an over-reliance on "telling" you can also do a search across your whole book for terms like "is, was, are, were, have, had" and tally up the results. While you're there, also search for terms like "feel, see, hear, taste, smell" and see if you can rewrite sentences without those sensory indicator words, while still evoking the sensation and immersion.
It's the difference between: The taste of bile was on her tongue vs. acidy bile lurched onto her tongue.
And in conclusion...
The thing is, neither sentence is inherently wrong, and both get the reader to where they're going. And, depending on the importance of the character or that moment to the scene (context!), you might choose to "tell" rather than "show." The point is, most books function with an interplay between those two styles. Pick any book off the shelf and I can guarantee you that no writer is "showing" you 100% of the time.
And you probably wouldn't enjoy a book written in that style of prose either. Or maybe you would? If so, enjoy!
"Show, don't tell" is just lazy critique/review short hand that actually means a lot more than just the simple phrase, but reviewers/critique partners are often ill-equipped to provide writers with the tools needed to improve. "Just show me don't tell me" is feedback that is often SO DAMAGING to writers because it's nonspecific. Those leveling it often don't really understand what elements are at play and how to help the writer improve. They just know, something is missing and they want "more." The good news is, writers CAN improve their writing if someone is willing to, you know... be more specific and empathetic in explaining their reasoning behind deploying that statement.
The more you hone in on shedding some of your tendency to "tell," the easier it becomes to "show." Or, to add the "showing" parts in the revision. You'd be surprised at how many first drafts feature more "telling" than "showing." It turns out, a lot of us go back and add the good stuff in later. But you should never, never discount the need to "tell" in a story just because someone once gave you this lazy piece of feedback.
Melinda Jasmine Crouchley, YA science fiction author and professional editor.