Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
— Anton Chekhov
One of my most common edits is pointing out to an author where they have an issue of show vs. tell.
What this means is that you are telling authors something instead of showing them. Telling is boring and redundant. Showing, on the other hand, is vibrant and interesting.
Here’s an example:
Telling: Becky was frustrated.
Showing: Becky spun away and marched down the hall.
Simple as they are, the difference between the two examples should be obvious. In both cases, there’s emotion involved; but the second example is showing Becky’s frustration through action, which allows a reader to picture the scene and her frustration without the author outright telling us.
There is a time and a place for telling. If you filled your book with showing, you would have a very long book on your hands–and not long in a good way. Telling can be useful if you’ve already “shown” in an earlier scene and you just want to quickly recap. Another time when telling is important is when you want to cut unnecessary details.
I walked into the garage, opened my car door, sat down in my seat, took out my key, put it in the ignition, turned the key. Then I started my car, backed out of the garage, and drove away down the street.
There’s way too much there when you could have easily said this: I got in my car and drove away.
In the case of the second example, the rest of the narrative is implied. Oftentimes when you “tell,” you don’t give your readers enough credit to figure out emotion or action on their own. Or you don’t trust your writing enough to let some “showing” stand as is.
Telling is a way of dispensing information. It’s a useful tool, but it’s not very interesting or creative. If you want readers to feel emotion and really get into the scene with your characters, you need to show.
Here’s another example:
Telling: Dan was bored and wanted to go home.
Showing: Dan sighed and glanced at the clock for the sixth time in as many minutes. “Are you kidding me?” He groaned under his breath. “Only four o’clock?” In the silence of the detention room, the second-hand clicked. Fifty-nine minutes to go.
Hopefully you can see the difference. Think about this next time you start to write. Focus on showing as much as possible and only telling where appropriate. Really get into the scene to show action and emotion through description that will engage readers.
For more examples of show vs. tell, check out this post from Flogging the Quill.