Trevor Prescott enjoys sharing his tips for effective writing.
The Fundamentals of Writing
The age-old saying "it's better to show rather than tell" has been so widely overused that it has become cliche. Just about everyone who has undertaken some form of creative writing has heard some variation of this saying before and, if prompted, many authors would probably list it as one of the fundamentals of good writing.
In my experience as a fiction editor, however, I've noticed that while many authors are able to recite this fundamental writing rule, most fail to apply it. More interesting still is that when authors are given recommendations to show instead of tell, they nod their heads and then proceed to continue telling. This suggests that "show, don't tell" is little more than word salad. Authors know how to recite the rule, but few know how to apply it to their own work.
In a nutshell: Telling, in literature, is when you as an author are directly giving the reader information. Showing is when you indirectly give the reader information.
In this article, we're going to discuss the differences between showing and telling. You're going to see an example of telling, and how to rework that example to show instead. You're also going to be given a fresh new perspective on how to recognize 'telling' to better enable you to turn this 'telling' into showing. Finally, you're going to be given a sample of 'telling' that you'll be able to turn into 'showing' on your own.
What Is Telling?
'Telling', in literature, is when the reader is told instead of shown information. This definition is deceptively simple for a couple of reasons. For one, the definition invites very little engagement. While it DOES summarize the definition of telling in a concise manner (another rule of good writing, and a topic for another time), there's not a lot of 'meat' to it.
Let's look deeper. Telling, in literature, is when you as an author are directly giving the reader information. When you're telling the reader something, you're basically writing a letter to your reader. It's entirely subjective. What you want to do with your literature is to aim for objectivity—place something before the reader without bias or instruction. This way, your reader is able to formulate his or her own opinions in regards to the subject matter.
If you're creating a fantasy world (for example), the reader is able to build that world in their own mind (which makes it more memorable). By showing your world to your reader, you give a whole new world of depth to your world, which allows your reader to better interact with it.
Does this sound complicated? Yes, it does. This is why we're going to break this down further with an example. First, we're going to see an example of telling. Then, we're going to figure out exactly what it is that is being communicated in the example. Then, we're going to rewrite the example so it shows rather than tells the information. Ready? Let's go!
Writing Example 1: 'That's a Wrap'
"And, cut! That's a wrap, people."
James sighed with relief. He'd been an actor for years. He'd worked with Max, the director, a couple of times previously. Max was a pretty good director, but he tended to get caught up in his own world and focus more on the finished product of the film rather than actually directing. Oh well. He was the leading man in the most-hyped Slasher movie of the summer; he really couldn't complain.
Crossing the sound stage, James picked up his water bottle and took a swig. As he did so he saw his assistant, Donna, pushing her way through the crowd at the edge of the stage. "Excuse me! Excuse me!" he could hear her saying.
As she neared, Donna seemed out of breath. She was a dedicated personal assistant and worked hard to keep James happy. She looked at her clipboard. "Great acting, James!" she said.
"Thanks," James said, taking another swig of his water.
"Okay, so next you have a signing event with Georgia."
James sighed. Georgia was one of his co-stars. She and James were both A-list celebrities so these autograph signings were mandatory, which James didn't mind, but he really didn't care for Georgia. The only reason she'd come so far was because she'd sucked up to the producer and not because she had any acting chops. "Okay, if I have to," James said.
Donna nodded and lead James to the door, where she surely had a car waiting outside.
The Breakdown of Writing Example 1 (Above)
The above example is how many authors communicate information. The problem is, the entire example is told rather than shown. You'll be able to see the difference when we rework the writing to show the information rather than show it, and once you've seen the difference, you'll be able to see it clearly. For now, however, let's pick apart the example so we can see the information being conveyed:
- The main character (presumably) is named James.
- James is an actor. He acts in movies.
- James works with a man named Max, who is a director.
- He stars in a slasher movie.
- James has an assistant named Donna, who is good at her job.
- The next scene in this story will probably be an autograph signing.
- James will probably be attending the signing with a woman named Georgia.
- Georgia is also an actor.
- The only reason Georgia is such a big deal is because she sucked up to the producer.
This last bit about Georgia's qualification is important, and we'll be coming back to it shortly. For now, though, make a note of all of these things.
What we want to do is first take the reader into account. Understand that your reader doesn't need to have his or her handheld to understand most of these things and that s/he can infer a great deal of information from cues. This is the essence of showing: Showing, in literature, is when you as an author are indirectly giving the reader information
What we're going to do next is to rework this example so that the exact same information is conveyed, but we're going to do it in a manner that shows instead of tells the reader what's going on. The fundamental difference is that by showing instead of telling, your writing will be far more engaging, enjoyable to read, enjoyable to write, and interesting to the reader.
Writing Example 2 (Show Don't Tell): 'That's a Wrap'
"And, cut! That's a wrap, people."
James relaxed and took off his mask to wipe the sweat from his face. His water bottle, perched on a nearby stool, beckoned him. All around him, set designers set about dismantling the set and bringing out new props.
"Great work James," Max called from the edge of the stage as he stood up from his seat. By the time James looked up, Max's attention was already on the screen. James strolled over and looked over Max's shoulder at the monitor.
"Don't you think that's a little gory, Max?" James asked. "I mean, we're not supposed to be making torture porn here."
"It's fine!" Max said, dismissing James with a wave of his hand. "The audience eats this stuff up. You know, do you think it would be better if we did an overhead shot instead?"
"Whatever you say, boss," James said, taking another swig from his water bottle.
"You know what? The heck with it. This will work."
James shrugged. "I work by the hour. It's your money, Max," he said.
Hearing his name, James turned to find the source. Over the heads of lighting assistants and set designers he could see a tight bun of brown hair bobbing its way toward him. Donna emerged from the crowd, clutching her clipboard close to her chest. "Great acting, James, I mean it."
"Thanks," James said. "I think I was—"
"Is that a wrap? Are you done for the night?" Donna asked, staring down at her clipboard. "Good. Great. Awesome." She flipped through a couple of pages. "Because you have a signing in an hour. Well, it starts in half an hour, but you want to be fashionably late. There's already a line of people waiting to get in. I'm talking hundreds of people."
James scratched his neck. "How long is this going to take? All night?"
Donna shrugged. "Probably."
"Is there more security this time? I don't want a repeat of last time."
"Yup-yup-yup. I'm already on it. Double the security. And not just because of last time. Georgia is going to be signing with you, so there's probably going to be a huge turnout."
James reached down and picked up a towel to wipe off his makeup, but stopped short. "Georgia? Ugh, Georgia is going to be there?"
"Of course!" Donna exclaimed. "She's the leading lady, after all. We want her getting out there and meeting with the fans as much as possible."
James rolled his eyes. "Right. Who else is going to be at the signing? I don't want to sit directly next to her."
"Nobody else," Donna said tersely. "Just you and Georgia. Come on, it'll be fun."
"Right," James said. "All the fun of a root canal. Fine, let's get this show on the road."
Develop Your Writing and Watch Behind-the-Scenes Film Footage
The Breakdown of Writing Example 2 (Above)
You probably see a distinct difference between the first example and this one, and it's more than length. We've communicated the same information but we've done so in a more engaging way. Believe it or not, none of the things that we expressed outright in the first example are mentioned in the second example; your readers are able to infer it on their own. Let's go through the information one bit at a time.
Inference: The main character (presumably) is named James.
This one is pretty obvious. The action focuses on James, so we're able to infer that he's an important character.
Inference: James is an actor. He acts in movies.
This one is more subtle, and it's here that you can really see the difference between showing and telling. In the second example, it's never explicitly mentioned that James is an actor. You infer this from the visual cues provided in the first two paragraphs. For one, Max says "cut, people! That's a wrap!" which clues in your reader that we're on a set. The second paragraph reinforces this suspicion, with mentions of the stage and the people who work there (set designers). Notice also that while we know that James is an actor, we don't know if he's an actor in movies or television. That's fine; it's not important right this second.
Inference: James works with a man named Max, who is a director.
The biggest clue here is that Max opens the chapter by saying "cut", but that line is unattributed—we don't know who is saying it, because there aren't any tags (such as "Max said").
We get the idea anyway, however. For example, when we first see Max, he's standing up from a chair. To the layman, who sits on the edge of a set? Usually the director, in a director's seat. Yeah, there might be a couple of other people seated, but the first go-to for most people is going to be "director".
This suspicion is reinforced by Max's subsequent actions: he's looking over the footage and commenting on what will make it better. This just screams 'director'. Then, of course, we have James referring to Max as "boss", which is a huge hint.
Inference: He stars in a slasher movie.
Depending on the context, exactly what type of movie James is starring in is probably not important. It really depends on the story and whether or not the movie plays into the plot. Regardless of whether or not the movie is important, however, we've added the extra detail that it's a slasher movie, and we've done this using dialogue cues. Specifically, James referring to the goriness of the scene, and comparing it to torture porn.
We know that a lot of movies probably aren't going to be gory. Romantic comedies are probably out of the equation, as are children's movies. Sure, it could be a science fiction movie or action film, hence the 'torture porn' reference. This reference (which admittedly relies on cultural relevance) brings to mind the horror movies of the last decade which rely heavily on violence and gore and have been criticized as being 'torture porn'. Most of your readers are going to make the connection.
Even then, the nature of the movie doesn't really matter right now. If the movie IS relevant to the plot, then it will probably be better fleshed-out in the chapters to come. If the movie ISN'T relevant to the plot, then you've provided enough detail to imply its nature, but not enough to give it undue importance.
Inference: James has an assistant named Donna, who is good at her job.
Donna's introduction has a lot to do with this point, with her literally shoving her way through a crowd to reach James. Her clipboard and the numerous pages on it suggest organization and she's so caught up in doing her job that she interrupts James while he's speaking. We get the impression from Donna that she's a no-nonsense kind of girl -- she has a job to do and she's going to do it.
Inference: The next scene in this story will probably be an autograph signing.
Another pretty obvious clue, delivered via Donna's dialogue.
Inference: James will probably be attending the signing with a woman named Georgia.
Inference: Georgia is also an actor.
Donna says that Georgia will be signing autographs along with James, suggesting that she too is an actor in the film.
Inference: The only reason Georgia is such a big deal is because she sucked up to the producer.
Earlier we mentioned that this is an important point. Here's why.
In the original example, this is delivered as a fact. There's no qualifier to suggest that it's James's opinion, such as "James thought Georgia was only successful because of etc., etc." Instead, it's stated as a fact, which says way too much about the plot. We're told something about Georgia's character before she's even introduced, and because the author took the time to say it, we know that this is probably going to play a role later in the story. Instead of letting the reader make his or her own decisions about Georgia, you've directly spoon-fed them a character trait.
A better option, at least in the original example, would be to remove the remark about Georgia entirely. A better option overall would be to allow the reader to make his or her own decision regarding whether or not Georgia knows her stuff, or if she really DID get her position by sucking up to the producer.
For example, if she's poor at her job, you might introduce this by putting her in a conversation with another actor. During this conversation, she's exposed to filmmaking terms that she should know, but doesn't. In doing so, you've suggested to the reader that she's not entirely qualified to be acting in the film.
If you want to communicate that she's good at her job and that James is an opinionated jerk, you'd want to reverse the roles and highlight the fact that Georgia knows more about film making than James.
Ideally, you want to keep subjective opinion out of the equation entirely. Have your characters perform well in some regards and poorly in others. As a result, your characters become three-dimensional, realistic, and balanced.
Opportunities for Extra Characterization
Notice in the first example that little to nothing is known about James as a character. We know his labels (actor, dislikes Georgia) but these are just that -- labels. By showing instead of telling, we're able to illustrate James more as a human. Better yet, sometimes these opportunities avail themselves unintentionally. Specifically, you'll notice the line:
James shrugged. "I work by the hour. It's your money, Max," he said.
I hadn't planned on giving James any characterization during the example but while writing it, the opportunity presented itself. Here we're able to infer a LOT of information about James from the way he responds to Max's indecision about the scene. His attitude is "I work by the hour" which suggests that he doesn't really have any passion for acting, he just sees it as an income.
Just by changing James's reaction, we can alter his personality entirely. For example, had he said "come on, Max, we still have time to do another run-through", we'd get the impression that James takes pride in his work and wants the film to succeed.
Or, we could have him say "come on, Max. We can do another run-through. I don't think I have anything going on after this". This actually gives the reader insight into the relationship between James and Donna -- we know that Donna has a great deal of control over James's schedule and handles it almost exclusively. This opens up a lot of opportunities for social drama in later chapters. For example, Donna might become an antagonist by abusing her power over James. Or, she might prove to be an invaluable ally, seeing something that James overlooked. The possibilities are endless. Take a look at this line, too:
"Right," James said. "All the fun of a root canal. Fine, let's get this show on the road."
The 'telling' variant of this line would read something like this:
"Right, all the fun of a root canal," James said sarcastically. "Fine, let's get this show on the road."
Note the difference. In this variant, the author is telling the reader that James has a sarcastic tone to his voice.
You'll notice that in the example, this telling is completely unnecessary. We've already established that James takes little pride in his work, dislikes his co-star, and dislikes the idea of an autograph signing. We've established a heavy sense of cynicism so when we reach the 'root canal' line, we KNOW based on context and James's character that the line is sarcastic. Reading it, you can almost HEAR the sarcasm; drawing attention to it by telling is just a waste of word space.
The beauty of this characterization? An opportunity for overarching character development emerges. Overall, we get the impression that James is probably unhappy. He's feeling unfulfilled. He'd prefer different circumstances but for whatever reason, he's chosen his current path. Which begs the questions:
- What would James rather be doing?
- Why is he still acting if he'd prefer to be doing something else?
- What got him into acting in the first place? Maybe he was a bright-eyed young kid at one point, excited by the idea of Hollywood only to find that it failed to live up to his expectations.
- What could enter into James's life, right this instant, that would make him feel happier?
- (in plot terms) What happens at the autograph signing that changes James's trajectory? Or, what happens at the autograph signing that illustrates to us, as readers, James's true tragic flaw?
You can see how just a little bit of showing can go a long way, and open countless avenues of possibility for your story.
A Summary of Important Tools for How You Can Improve Your Writing
In this article, you:
- Learned a new way of looking at showing versus telling in literature.
- Saw an example of writing that mostly tells the reader information.
- Saw an example of writing that shows the reader information.
- Learned how showing can open up fresh new possibilities for your story, in terms of characterization and plot.
Practice Examples Included Below
To conclude this article, let's practice what we've learned. Below you'll find a sample of writing that is mostly told. Take a few minutes to rewrite it so the information is shown instead, and post your rewrite in the comments.
Extra Credit: Think of literature you've read that effectively shows instead of tells the reader information. The photo of Shakespeare at the top of this article is a good place to start. For example: in Shakespeare's MacBeth, we're never explicitly how Lady MacBeth feels about the murder of Duncan, and yet we know she feels guilty. How do we know this? Why does Shakespeare use this method rather than outright telling us how Lady MacBeth feels?
Practice Example Number 1
Tony and Eleanor got out of the car. They were siblings and they'd just inherited an old barn from their recently deceased father.
"Yuck," Eleanor said. She didn't like the barn. It was sitting in an empty, overgrown field. The barn looked dilapidated and run down. An old rusty tractor sat beside it, but it didn't look like it had been run for ages.
"It's not that bad," Tony said, ever the optimist. "We can probably turn this place around."
Eleanor knew what that meant. She knew her brother all too well. When he said 'turn this place around', what he really meant was 'turn it into a place to have wild parties without worrying about the cops showing up'. She'd always disapproved of her brother's party-animal tendencies, just like their mother had before her.
"I don't think so," Eleanor said. "This place should be bulldozed. We'll sell the land and let it become someone else's problem."
Tony snorted. That was Eleanor for you -- always the first to look a gift horse in the mouth. This place was great! Tony imagined all the cool things he'd be able to do with the barn as he trudged through the mud toward the door.
"Come on," Tony said. "Let's look inside, at the very least."
Eleanor rolled her eyes. "Fine," she said. "But if I lose a high heel in this mud, you're buying me a new pair."
An Example From Film
Sometimes it helps to imagine your story as a film. If you picture the action in your 'mind's eye', does it make sense to be giving the reader information at a particular point? If so, WHO would be giving the information? Would the main character be turning to the screen and speaking directly to the audience? Or would you have a narrator speaking? If the latter, how much talking does the narrator do (because it's easy for the narrator to speak too much).
Ideally, you want to avoid both of these situations. An immense amount of information can be communicated nonverbally, based entirely on context. One good example of this is from the popular 1979 film Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The context is that the main character, Luke Skywalker, has just gotten in an argument with his uncle Owen. Owen runs a farm and wants Luke to stay to help him through the season. Luke, however, wants to leave the farm and join the rebellion against the evil Empire.
Owen ends up getting his way, leaving Luke feeling dejected. He knows there's more to life than working on a farm and he dreams of making something of himself, but his current circumstances forbid him from doing so.
In this scene, Luke has stepped out in the aftermath of the argument. Bear context in mind. Luke has just made a case for himself (that he wants to leave and start his life, all information that was delivered to the audience indirectly) and faced the reality that he won't be able to do so for the foreseeable future. This is a short scene at just over 30 seconds and yet we're given deep insight into Luke as a character, with additional emotional context being provided by John Williams's beautiful score.
Without being told anything at all, the scene communicates an enormous amount of characterization in a narrow window of time.