I’ve heard it said that “Show, don’t tell” is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to grasp. Really? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not belittling anyone who says, “Heck, yeah!” But to me, if you’ve mastered POV, “showing” should become second nature.
I hear the naysayers among you saying, “Umm…hello? They’re two entirely different concepts.” And yeah, as concepts they are indeed separate. But once you’re accustomed to writing a deeper POV, “telling” falls away as an added benefit.
Let’s start by defining “show” and “tell.” “Telling” is exactly that. You, as the author, telling your reader the details, like listing facts: dry with no passion. “Showing” allows the details to unfold more slowly, as your character realizes them. For example:
TELLING: Jake was afraid. If he went home and told his parents he’d lost his bike, they’d be furious. It wasn’t his fault. Ronnie had told him the bike would be perfectly fine on his front lawn.
SHOWING: Jake stared at his front door and willed his sneakered feet to move forward. Both Mom and Dad would be in the living room by now. They’d notice almost immediately that he hadn’t opened the garage door to put his bike away. Fear slinked up his throat, pounded harder than his pulse. On a harsh swallow for courage, he stepped onto the porch and practiced the speech he’d planned all the way home.
“I’m sorry. I know you told me I should always lock up my bike, but Ronnie said it would be okay on his lawn. And I was only inside his house for five minutes…”
One of the first differences between these examples that you should notice (besides the length) is that in the SHOWING version, I’m in a much clearer POV. And oddly enough, I didn’t go overboard with adverbs or adjectives in either passage. Dozens of adjectives or adverbs do not change a “telling” paragraph to a “showing” paragraph. Because showing is about more than detailed description. It’s about putting your reader in your character’s shoes.
Smart-alecks will tell you that you must use all five senses in every scene to avoid “telling.” I’ll tell you right now, that’s a lot of bull. The only time you’d be able to use all five senses without losing track of your story is in a love scene. Generally speaking, if you can inject any three of the five into your scene, you’re good to go. Too much detail will slow your pacing to a crawl and bore your reader to tears.
Details should enhance, intensify, or define, but never slow your reader down.
For example, if you’re enhancing your setting, let’s say the beach, your character will feel the hot sun, a light breeze, sweat on his/her skin. She’ll hear the soft whoosh of the waves kissing the shore, the raucous cries of gulls, the screeches of children, an assortment of music from staticky radios. The odors of coconut sunscreen, salt, maybe burgers on a grill will fill the air. Salt and sand can land on her tongue. And visually? As much or as little as you’d like her to see. Blue water, white sand, multi-colored bathing suits, beach balls, clear sky, towels, chairs, a fat guy in a Speedo…
To intensify a character’s mood, let’s say your character is nervous about an upcoming job interview. Sweat might trickle down the back of his neck, his heartbeat might speed up, his hands could tremble. Body odor might waft up from his armpits. His brain could be reciting his resume in his head. He’ll probably pace, or squirm in the waiting room. There might be a secretary or receptionist in the room. He’ll be filling out an application. Maybe make a mistake and consider which makes him look worse. Should he cross out the error or ask the receptionist for another blank application and start over?
Define a character who’s self-absorbed with things like that quick check in the mirror or shop window reflection, the hair fluff, the perfect manicure, designer labels. Her dialogue (Yes! Even dialogue can be used to show, not tell!) would revolve entirely around what’s going on in her life, what inconvenience she’s suffering, what she wants, needs, hates. She could trip over a homeless man in the street and tell him to lie on the sidewalk elsewhere. Maybe her dogs wear outfits that match hers. She’s probably rude to salesclerks and service people.
All these descriptions are POV actions that will show, rather than tell. In each example, with the list of things the character sees, smells, tastes, feels or hears, the setting comes to life so much that you don’t need to add, “Andrea sat at the beach.” or “Jerry waited outside the executive’s office for his interview.” or “Miranda was a spoiled witch used to getting her way.”
Now for the exceptions. There will be times when you want to tell rather than show.
To push time along, you might close one chapter as a group of people are heading into the dining room and open a new chapter with a sentence like, “After dinner, the couples dispersed to stroll the moonlit gardens.” Unless it’s crucial to the story, we don’t need to sit through dinner with our characters. So a quick summary grounds the reader and allows them to see the passage of time. Perfectly acceptable.
Backstory should be told (in very small doses) rather than shown (which is generally in flashback).
And the last place where you tell rather than show? Your synopsis! (A topic for another time.)