Kindergarten could teach you a great deal about writing—or so the conventional wisdom goes. There are hundreds of writing teachers and professors and books that will emphatically relay the time-tested nugget of knowledge that a writer should “show and not tell.” But what does this mean? And is it the best advice for all situations?
When someone tells you that the best writers show and don’t tell, they often don’t explain what is meant by this phrase. Essentially, the axiom refers to describing the event, setting, motivation, or action instead of filtering the information through the narrator or character. That is, the best writing, according to this school of thought, invariably results when the author relates it “raw” instead of cooking it up and serving it. Let’s look at an example.
The wind threw leaves and rain against the window. Jason huddled in the corner with his arm over his eyes and waited for the storm to pass.
Jason saw the leaves and rain hitting the window. He was acting terrified of the storm because he didn’t like it.
The reason that you are likely to hear this advice so often is because showing usually results in a fresher, more interesting story, poem, or article. As you can see, the first example let’s us know what is happening and the mindset of the character, as does the second example. However, the first example presents the same information directly and gives the “feeling” of immediacy. That’s the main purpose for “showing”: it engages the reader’s senses and mind.
On the other hand, there is no explicit rule for always “showing” instead of “telling,” and no writer should remove the latter from his or her repertoire. For example, telling can be an effective way in prose to cast doubt on the narrator (if the narrator is not a trustworthy source of information). A narrator that sometimes tells the reader what to think is one that can be very interesting.
In addition, telling instead of showing can build in a level of disconnect that may be appropriate for the situation. If I tell what Jason saw, I add a layer of distance for the reader, which may be needed if Jason is sick, disconnected, or not quite sane.
Jason thought he saw something move in the corner, but when he looked, there was nothing there.
In the above example, I have filtered the action through Jason’s eyes, but this helps us to see how Jason is starting to imagine things that aren’t really there. On the other hand, I could also fool the reader by not filtering and playing along with Jason’s imaginary friends, but that is purely a stylistic choice. Context and mood are key.
If you are in doubt, the best advice is to remove the verbs see, hear, thought, or felt from your writing until you get a grip on when telling can be effective. Just remember this illustration: showing is like solving a puzzle yourself and telling is like looking at the answer in the back of the book.