Most stories comprise of both telling and showing. If telling explains, simplifies and summarises by compressing time and space, showing reveals and dramatises, allowing readers or audiences to piece things together for themselves. Let’s look at five ways, with examples, of how to show not tell:
Sometimes a writer compresses actions and events through narration to speed up a story. Even so, catapulting the reader into the scene by showing rather than telling, even in narration, can increase reader involvement.
Telling: The boy felt terror when he heard his uncle, cane in hand no doubt, approaching his room. He always came to his room with his cane. The boy’s tiny stomach contracted into an even tighter knot and his fear grew.
Showing: The boy heard his uncle’s footsteps grow louder. He squeezed his eyes shut. The cane swooshed through the air, each practice stroke sounding closer. He pressed his palms against his ears, and, shivering, counted back from ten.
Dialogue, especially subtext dialogue, can reveal a layer beneath the literal meaning of the words.
Telling: “You thought I wouldn’t notice, Tommy? The number of coins in the orange pot on the top shelf? The pot I thought you couldn’t reach? You think I’m stupid? You thieving, ungrateful brat.”
Showing: “Get a load of this, Tommy. Ferguson caught his nephew stealing from his wallet. Thrashed him real bad. Should’ve cut his hand off, I says. Boys shouldn’t steal. Anyways, fetch that orange pot from the kitchen cupboard, will you? On the top shelf. The one with the money you pretend not to know is there.”
A setting that uses vivid sensory details can help the writer to show not tell by having the characters, hence the reader, experience the environment through the senses more directly.
Telling: The angry, ominous Arcus clouds were full of lightning. A terrifying storm was brewing. He had never feared storms before. But he feared this one. He feared he would not survive—unless he could tie the loose sails back on the mast before the storm hit.
Showing: The boat bucked under his feet and lightning lit up the Arcus clouds. Loose sails hissed and flapped savagely above him like wounded behemoths. He’d have to secure them to the mast immediately or die trying.
“Show don’t tell is the indispensable technique of accomplished writing.”
4. Use Details – but not to many
Don’t be too ornate or over-descriptive. Less is more.
Too ornate: He was heavy-set, with thick eyebrows and the forehead of a Neanderthal, muscles bulging with the threat of deadly violence, and a voice as gruff as a wheel-less barrow grating on cold grey concrete.
More apt (especially for a screenplay): He looked and sounded like a concrete truck churning over a full load.
5. Showing by describing action
Telling slows your story down. Yet, you still need to introduce characters, environments, and provide background information. So how to do it? Through action that shows while characterising or creating tension.
If you need to introduce a character who has to get from A to B on a train, instead of having him while away the time by describing the passengers and the thoughts this triggers, build tension by having him notice someone bothering another passenger through small actions—sniffing her hair, whispering in her ear, squeezing up against her, and the like. The scene will get you from A to B in no time while maintaining momentum.
Although telling is necessary in order to cover the large narrative terrain of a story, showing involves the reader or audience in a more direct way.