Telling a story and showing it are two different approaches to conveying a narrative. Telling a story involves using words to describe events, characters, and emotions to express what is happening, while showing a story involves using visual imagery, actions, and dialogue to experience those same elements. Let me say this upfront; it is extremely difficult to write a story only in tell or show mode. A writer can and will usually mix and match whatever fits their narrative voice.
When telling a story, a writer is essentially narrating it to their audience, providing them with the necessary information to understand the plot, the characters, and the emotions involved. This approach relies on the audience’s imagination to create their own mental images of the events being described. This writing style has been used for 500+ years all over the world. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this method of storytelling.
Showing a story involves using visual images to depict events, characters, and emotions in a more immersive way. This approach allows the audience to experience the story more directly, as they are shown what is happening rather than simply being told about it. The imagery is created for the reader in this case. Think about showing a story as being similar to a movie. You will rarely hear a movie character say, “It’s raining”, but you will see them wiping the mist from their face with a handkerchief or feeling water slip under a collar and down their back.
Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, and the choice between them depends on the specific goals and preferences of the storyteller. Telling and showing employ the same techniques, such as plot, characterization, dialogue, point of view, imagery, symbolism, foreshadowing, etc. However, they use each differently.
So, before we get too much farther into this discussion, I’m certain you may want to know my preference. I am a huge fan of showing my stories. I believe showing a story can be more engaging and emotionally impactful than simply telling it. Please keep in mind, however; I’m not trying to talk you into changing the way you write.
If you are interested in knowing more about the show, you may be asking yourself, “So how do you turn a tell into a show story?” Here are four excellent strategies I have found useful:
(a) Use strong verbs: Don’t use walk if you can say gallop, skip, saunter, stroll or amble.
(b) Use specific nouns and clear adjectives in descriptions that paint a picture for the reader. Don’t just tell us Grandma baked a pie; say a cinnamon-apple pie with a golden crust rested on the windowsill above the sink.
(c) Include sensory details: describe how something sees, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels. Use the senses in your descriptions.
(d) Use dialogue: ‘“Don’t you walk out of here!” Mom yelled’ is better than Mom was angry.
Those four strategies are just scratching the surface, however. I wish it were that easy to show your story.
Showing requires subtlety. Perhaps the biggest challenge of showing is to be able to convey the facts and nuances of your novel through subtle actions, descriptions, and dialogue. The other challenges outlined below all contribute to the overarching issue of subtlety.
Showing requires creativity. If you want to be subtle, you’ll need to be creative. A creative premise for your novel is one thing, but the true creativity comes when it’s time to put the pieces of your outline together in a way that hooks a reader and pulls them along to the last word.
Showing requires human understanding. Much of the art of showing has a foundation in human psychology. As a writer, you need to understand your characters better than anyone else—how they act, react, gesture, and speak. A realistic character isn’t an easy thing to conjure up, but a believable cast will make all the difference when it comes to showing.
Showing requires a diverse vocabulary. I’m not saying you need to use multi-syllabic words in every sentence, but you do need to have a vocabulary broad enough that you can convey the subtleties needed for strong showing in your writing.
Showing requires an ability to self-edit. The book editing process is vital for a number of reasons, one of which is the chance to eliminate some of the telling you may have done without realizing it. This may mean “killing your darlings”; eliminating some of the passages of your novel that you love most dearly.
Showing requires trust in the audience. Often, writers end up over-telling because they are afraid their audience won’t understand what they are trying to say. While clarity is certainly important in any novel, a writer must walk the tightrope between over-explaining and giving away just enough.
Showing requires practice. A lot of practice. No one is born a perfect writer, and nearly every major author who has dispensed writing advice has said something along these lines, “If you want to succeed, you have to spend a lot of time writing”.
You may be ready for a few specific examples. A little clique-y but you get the picture:
TELLING: John was sad to see his girlfriend leave.
SHOWING: John wiped tears from his face as he watched his girlfriend board the plane.
TELLING: The house was creepy.
SHOWING: Only a single dim candle lit the room. The house smelled like dust and rotting wood, and something faintly metallic that made John think of blood. Stuffed animals were mounted around the room: a wild-eyed buck, a grizzly frozen in fury, a screech owl with sharp yellow talons.
Contrary to my general belief in showing, there are times when telling is better than showing; namely, when describing how a character thinks or feels, otherwise known as internal narrative.
Internal narrative is the private monologue that makes readers feel as though we’re inside a character’s head, privy to thoughts and feelings the character doesn’t necessarily express out loud or through his actions. Internal narrative is essential because it helps us understand exactly what makes a character tick—his fears, his motivations, his secret dreams. Getting to walk around in a character’s head for a while is one of the best parts about reading, and you’re depriving your reader of that pleasure if you don’t have a clear, detailed internal narrative.
Writing is hard, but you all can do it! I’m just trying to add a few tricks to your bag.
Just edit this element to add your own HTML.
Tell VS Show
About Writing | The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage