You’ve heard it enough times to know it like the back of your hand; yet it’s something that every author is HIGHLY encouraged to master- for good, no, make that GREAT writing.
And you even know what it means: give the reader evidence, something to see. Sure, Johnny is angry at Sue, but how do you provide evidence of it? And Mary is extremely grief stricken and depressed, but how do you convince the reader of this?
It’s not enough to state that a character is angry. And the truth is, no matter how many exclamation marks you place after Johnny’s statement, nothing will come across more powerful to the reader than if you SHOW this.
Johnny turned to Sue and raised his voice a few octaves higher this time. “Leave this house and never return!” He walked off the porch, taking a fast stride to the car, and left.
What’s going on here? Well, we can deduce that Johnny is upset at Sue. He even leaves the porch and drives away.
But is that enough evidence to really be convinced at his anger?
Let’s try this:
The glass of iced tea slammed down on the table, causing most of it to spill on Sue’s blouse. Johnny stood and balled both fists. His words seemed almost choked in his throat as he spewed them out and hissed his venomous words at Sue. “Leave this house and never return!” His large body towered over hers as he stood and stumped off the porch. In a large stride, he jerked the car door open, started the engine, and screeched backward out of the long driveway.
Ah. Now we actually see Johnny’s anger.
Here’s another example.
Mary had been depressed for several weeks. She shied away at many of the attempts that her family would make to come to check on her, hiding any evidence of her ongoing emotional state.
“Mary, are you OK? I hope you’re not drinking again.”
“No, of course not dad. I gave that up years ago, remember?” She stepped to the side to let her father in.
OK. Well, Mary is depressed. Presumably. But really, we only know because the author TOLD us.
Let’s revise that:
Mary pushed past rows of the dark-colored wardrobe she’d been collecting for a while. She’d be skipping breakfast again, making that at least 4 meals she had missed this week. Hearing the doorbell, she reluctantly sloshed passed small mounds of dirty laundry and shrugged her shoulders.
Oh God, another visitor.
Peering through the tiny peephole, she saw her father and rushed to hide the half-empty bottle of brandy on her coffee table.
“Hi dad.” She forced a smile.
“Hi Mary. You OK?” Her father stepped inside.
Now that’s more like it! Evidence!
Look at Mary’s story. All the elements conveyed from the first example are present in the second, but with proof. The revision was able to demonstrate Mary’s depression by describing her closet full of recently purchased dark clothes (indicating that the wardrobe hadn’t always been this dark), explaining the numerous meals she is suddenly skipping, and her hesitant attitude at the sound of her doorbell. Hiding her drinking problem from family is also present in the revision.
Now that we have a pretty good understanding of SHOW, what about TELL? Is there ever any time to tell rather than show?
Of course, there is.
When you tell, you do just that. Not every aspect of a scene needs to be spelled completely out. Your character is smoking a cigarette in a scene where you want the reader to focus on the character across the street. Don’t drag on about the cigarette being lit and smoke forming in the air. Just say that they lit a cigarette and go on. BUT, let’s say that you want to create drama and suspense around the character who is smoking. This time, drag it out by explaining it in detail; how they gave an evil grin as they lit it, how menacing the smoke looked in the air.
To tell, you want the reader to take you at your word without having to provide evidence or a lengthy list of details. This is also ideal when the scene is dragging, and the pacing could be sped up to make the action stand out. Achieve this by cutting out excessive details and using shorter, choppier sentences.
Check out this passage:
His large foot smashed on the gas pedal, causing the car to speed down the street. He hoped that he was clear of the cops that were about a mile behind him. When he saw that they were rapidly catching up to him, he made a wide left and headed into the woods.
Come on and get to the action already!
Now let’s see that revised:
He slammed on the gas, racing down the freeway.
Damn it, he thought. They’re gaining on me!
The steering wheel jerked left into the woods.
More like it!
Show to provide evidence with rich description, tell to skip evidence and push the narration forward toward a scene of action.
Show to slow the pacing, tell to speed it up.
Show to focus on character or setting of importance, tell for minor scenes without major importance.
Ultimately, it’s not so much show and do not tell. It’s more like know when to show and know when to tell.
Hope that helps!