The balance between showing and telling is one of the most important aspects of writing, and can be just as irritating as overused adverbs or consistent grammatical errors. If the scale is tipped to one side more than another, the result can really impact on the reader.
Consider this example of telling:
“What’s that?” Chelsea asked curiously, and her parents looked back her with fear shining in their eyes.
“It’s the end of the world …” said a dark figure in the doorway. The family turned to the creature, terrified.
“Please don’t hurt us,” her mother begged, pleading for mercy.
Some of the emphasised words above are the ones that aren’t needed, and really clog down the overall flow of the piece, they are directly telling the reader what is happening, emotively. We know that the girl is curious because she is asking a question – something she would not do if she wasn’t interested or curious in the first place.
Similarly, other words of the piece are poor ways to describe the situation. For example, the family being terrified – does that make you as a reader feel terrified? Since we are being told, rather than shown, the reader simply cannot feel emotionally invested in the situation. A much better way to conquer this example is by showing the terror, showing the effects on the senses of the characters and highlighting what is at stake.
Consider this alteration which has more showing, rather than telling:
“What’s that?” said Chelsea, staring at the darkness on the other side of the room. Her parents swallowed, the dim moonlight from the broken window caught the feverish layer of sweat on their skin.
“It’s the end of the world …” growled a creature from the doorway, the sound causing Chelsea’s blood to turn cold. She shivered as the creature stepped into the room, the darkness concealing its body like a coat. Its bloody scent poisoned her nostrils, made her stomach churn and bile rise up the sides of her throat. Human blood on his fur, most likely, and it might very well be their blood splashed there soon too.
“Please don’t hurt us …” said Chelsea’s mother, stepping in front of her family, her hands shaking as she held her palms towards the creature.
Hardly impressive, but a massively improved version with a reduced amount of telling the reader directly what the characters are feeling. Instead, their emotions are shown by their senses (the scent of blood, the lack of visibility in the darkness, the shivering), and by what is at stake (their lives). It adds a great more amount of tension and suspense than the former example, and yet never is the reader explicitly told that the characters are terrified or fearful – they are shown it.
Of course, there is definitely some amount of telling that needs to be done. After all, it can get very overwhelming and flowery if constantly applied Some parts of a story might be difficult to focus strictly on showing, especially those with many characters and sub-plots; or at the beginning of the story; or when a character is shifting psychological states, or simply to show a difference in point of view.
Too much showing can slow the pace, and too much telling becomes robotic and impersonal. Blending together showing and telling can still be effective by telling information the reader needs to know, and still showing something about the character. For example:
The year was 2059, all terminal illnesses were a thing of the past, the average life expectancy was 150, and yet Brandon still had to wait two hours to see his GP for a flu shot. He couldn’t stand the floor disinfectant’s harsh scent that clogged up his nostrils, or the constant opening and closing of the elevator doors past the lobby. He glanced at his iWatch K5 and promised himself that if he had to wait another ten minutes, he would storm straight outside and never come back, even if it meant taking another week off work sneezing up his guts.
Even though we are told why Brandon doesn’t like the surgery, the extent of his irritability is shown by the fact that he looks at his watch, and considers leaving. Through focusing on Brandon’s thoughts, information about the society can also be inferred, but not told independently with little link to Brandon’s character or the plot.
Try it yourself! In 100 words, write an extract and underline in different colours where you have shown, and where you have told. Note the balance for each side and see where showing or telling would be more effective to use.