Tell, don’t showJanuary 4, 2013
This week, I am revising a short story that will be published in February. One of the things I do while revising the first draft of a story is to identify the passages where I’m telling and to replace them with showing.
But I also stumbled across a few “telling” passages that I didn’t change.
While “show, don’t tell” is most often good advice, showing isn’t always better than telling.
Just a quick reminder: Showing is describing things in vivid details that allow readers to come to their own conclusions. Telling is giving the reader summaries and interpretations.
So when you’re showing, everything happens in real time. Events take up more space on the page if you show them instead of telling. If you describe something at length, readers will automatically think that the event or action holds a certain importance. So if you have unimportant, everyday tasks in your story, it might be better to tell.
Here are two examples from my short story.
The woman behind the front desk took one look at their sodden clothes and quickly checked them in.
It’s Valentine’s Day, and my main character, Annie, has booked a room at a cozy little inn to seduce her girlfriend. If I wrote half a page of dialogue about the inn’s manager welcoming them, handing over the key, and letting them know at what time they can have breakfast, it would take the focus from what’s really important in this scene. So instead of showing all the details of their interaction with the manager, I summarized and just said that the manager checked them in.
The second example is similar:
They ordered, and within ten minutes the waiter returned with the fries and two Caesar salads.
Here, Drew and Annie are enjoying a romantic dinner, but I want the focus to be on their interaction, the emotions, not on their interaction with the waiter, so instead of showing the ordering process, I summed it up and jumped ahead in time.
So maybe instead of advising writers to “show, don’t tell,” we should advise them to “show and tell.” The trick is to figure out when it’s better to show (probably 90% of the time) and when it’s better to tell.
Here are links to some of my previous posts about showing and telling: