“Show, don’t tell” must be one of the most often heard pieces of advice writers hear. But what on earth does it really mean? I think it’s easier to start with an example; “John felt scared,” is a perfect example of ‘telling.’ The same thing but done as ‘showing’ would be, “John cowered.” By using the second example, you are showing the reader how John felt; it puts a picture in the reader’s head. And, this is the golden rule to try and follow.
When you read a passage from your book or a scene description from your script, can you see it in your head, is there a picture? It is possible to paint a picture with words and words of description, but what’s that famous saying again? A picture says a thousand words. Think back to the picture in your head of John, I’ll bet you filled in his hair color, his clothes, his physical build, all without a single word of description. Now if any of these things are important to your story, then you’ll need to describe them, but if not, then why not let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks?
Whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, using ‘show’ will make your writing stand out. For emotions, showing is easy, it’s simply a matter of finding the right word that conveys an emotion. For other things, it takes a little more effort. Let’s take the following passage:
John was 42. He worked in an accountants office. The office was in a run-down part of town and filled with rusting filing cabinets that never worked properly, and a carpet that hadn’t been cleaned in what seemed like decades. He had one major client, Hardman’s Car Sales, and despite hating his job, he was terrified that he might lose them one day to his work colleagues who were always looking to steal business. He so hated his job that he spent a lot of the working day in his local bar, drowning his sorrows.
Got a picture in your head? Not bad, it certainly gives a lot of detail, but let’s try again:
John jealously guarded his relationship with Hardman’s Car sales from his shark-like colleagues at his downtown office. The thought of another day trudging over the sticky carpet and attempting to prise open the battered cabinets to get at his files, drove him to his favorite watering hole…again.
This time, you should have a much more vivid picture, and done with a lot fewer words. Here are some more examples of ‘show’ rather than ‘tell.’
The temperature was below zero, and John was freezing.
John pulled up his collar, his skin turning blue from the cold.
It was a day in late fall, the trees were bare. John walked to work.
The fallen leaves crackled under John’s feet as he made his way to work.
John and I met for dinner to go over the plan, but we were constantly interrupted by his girlfriend phoning every few minutes, and I was very irritated.
Halfway through dinner, John’s hand went to his pocket. “Again?” I sighed. “She just won’t stop calling,” he apologized.
The mechanic was surprised and amused to see me again so soon at the garage, I had been going every week for several months.
“Again?” exclaimed the mechanic raising his eyebrow. “We’re going to have to give you a loyalty card,” he laughed.
Should you always show rather than tell? No, there are times when telling is preferable. If, for instance, it is critical to your plot for your character to do something or go somewhere before getting back to the main story, then this is the time to use tell. Let’s say John has to fly to London, but missing his plane is a critical event in your story, you could have him have to make a detour to pick up his passport or drop off a message to someone. How he misses his plane doesn’t matter, it’s the event of missing it that is important. So you could ‘tell’ the detour before moving on to show the main event, e.g., “After detouring to his apartment to pick up his passport, John pressed his foot down hard on the accelerator in a desperate attempt to catch his flight.”
Hopefully, this has made things a little clearer, but if not, then feel free to get in touch.