Show Don't Tell, Doesn't Mean Don't Ever Tell
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
As writers we are bombarded by so many rules. Don’t do this, do that…it can be absolutely overwhelming…(Oh, don’t use adverbs.)
I am a big proponent of showing versus telling. I want my reader to be immersed in my story. Showing helps do that. Showing helps build an emotional bond between the author and the reader. However, although SHOW DON’T TELL is great advice, it doesn’t mean that you never tell.
You have to TELL in a story.
You don’t want page after page of telling and you don’t want to lead your reader by the nose, but sometimes you must TELL. Sometimes you need to slow the pace of your story, telling works well for this. However, you only want to include what is most important to your story. Remember to keep it brief.
Knowing when to tell vs show will get easier the more you write.
When I first heard the phrase show don't tell, I had no idea what that meant. I just didn't understand what they were suggesting I do. After reading about the difference between the two, it made sense. Now it really is second nature to show instead of tell. At least after the first draft.
(When writing your first draft, just get it on paper. During your first read through, you can start changing your telling to showing.)
I explain showing versus telling like this.
Picture yourself in front of a giant TV screen as you read your book. If you can see what you are reading play out on that TV screen, then you are showing your reader not telling.
Example of telling:
Damien knew the importance of the Tabernacle. As a kid, he was unable to go near it, even when he performed his duty as an altar boy. The ornate box was not what was so important as what it held inside, the Eucharist and the wine. Communion was by far one of the most important rites of a practicing Catholic. By taking the blood and flesh of Christ, Catholics prepared themselves to one day be in the presence of God. As he stood in front of the sacred container, getting ready to break the seal, he felt his pulse race and made the sign of the cross.
Okay. That kind of sucks, huh? Even though I convey the importance of the Tabernacle, I don’t give you any emotion behind it. I give you a Catholic history lesson. BORING….This keeps the reader at arm’s length. I don’t bring the reader into the scene, nor do I connect with the reader on any emotional level.
Let’s see how I rewrote this for my book. This is taken from my book Confession of Sin:
“If the killer wanted to make a statement against the Church, the Tabernacle would accomplish that.”
Joe’s eyes widened. “Ooh no. No way. That goes against everything the Church stands for. You don’t mess with that. That is the most sacred symbol of the Church. We aren’t even allowed to touch it.”
“We’re the police. We can touch it,” Damien said. He had never been this close to a Tabernacle. It held the Eucharist and wine used in Communion. Even as an altar boy, he was not allowed to get the Host out of it.
Damien stepped closer to the box. Made from a solid block of marble, about one foot by one and a half feet in size. It had a scalloped edge etched into the marble, and a tall gold cross sat at on the top. The gold door had been scratched and bent slightly out of place. Damien glanced back at Joe and noticed he stood a few feet away. “Joe, what are you so afraid of?”
“Man, I don’t want to be anywhere near you when the lightning strikes. We shouldn’t be breaking into the Tabernacle.”
“I’m not going to get struck by lightning, and we don’t have to break in. The lock is already broken. Open the evidence bag.” Damien opened the little door. Stuffed between the Eucharist and the wine chalice were Mandahari’s clothes. Damien removed the clothes carefully and placed them into the large paper bag. He had Joe call Roger and ask him to send a CST to the church to dust the Tabernacle and the surrounding area for prints.
“Roger is on his way. He’s near here for another case. Said to sit tight. He promised while he was here he would give everything one more look before the cleaning crew showed up.” Joe rolled the top of the evidence bag and sealed it.
Damien finished a cursory examination of the box, not finding anything. “Let’s go let Father Jessup know what’s going on. He may have a heart attack when we tell him what the killer did. Be ready to give CPR.”
I use just enough tell to get some facts across, but I use dialogue to get the bulk of it out. One other thing, I only use one dialogue tag in this whole section, SAID, and I only used it once.
I use my characters’ actions and movements to convey the importance of the Tabernacle and the emotions they are feeling.
There are certain words that TELL. Like felt, angry, hurt, sad, fear…instead of saying he felt sad, (his eyes became glassy. His bottom lip trembled as the tears spilled down his cheeks.)
Instead of saying he was angry at her, consider (His hands were clenched into fists, his arms tight against his rigid body. He pursed his lips forming a thin line.)
Check out this example. I don't use any telling words, instead I show you what my character is feeling:
At the sound of the garage door opening, Damien jolted upright in his chair. He moved from his desk to the doorway of the office. He leaned against the door frame, rubbing his eyes. He blinked several times, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. He watched as Dillon came down the hallway towards him. His heart rate sped up and his pants tightened in the crotch area. Her honey blonde hair hung loose around her shoulders and the amber in her eyes glowed in the overhead lights.
Hopefully, if I did that right, I conveyed tired and aroused in this passage without one time saying what my character felt.
I hope this post has given you some clarity on SHOW VS. TELL. Hell, I may have made it worse. Sorry.
Remember, some telling is good and needed. Just not a shit ton of it.
Now go write!
I used Show and Tell in Fiction by Marcy Kennedy to learn the difference. I highly recommend this book, but there are several others and several free things on the internet that will help you.