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The ‘show and tell’ balancing act

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

‘Show, don’t tell’ is often billed as the golden rule of writing a story. And this is a crucial skill to master. But it’s not a rule – or if it is, it’s one that you need to learn how to break, and do so as frequently as your story requires. First of all, though, I’d like to go into some detail of what it is and why it’s important, and to point you to some great online resources.

Show a character

Showing a character can take a lot longer than telling the reader about them – but it’s very much worth it. Why? Because if you tell your reader that Bill is arrogant, they have theoretical knowledge of Bill’s arrogance only. If you write a scene in which this character behaves in a superior and condescending way, then your reader will understand what he is like. They may not even put a word to the behaviour – words can mean different things to different people in any case – but they will sense Bill’s nature. It’s almost as though the reader has experienced Bill’s arrogance themselves. That’s far more powerful than theoretical knowledge. Reedsy has some great examples here.

Show the scene

Rather than telling the reader that the grass is wet and the sun is shining, can you show them your character’s experience of seeing dew-drops and feeling the sun on their back? This evokes in the reader a sense of experiencing these things for themselves, and there are some great examples of this at Emma Darwin’s site here. Showing the scene in this way gives the added benefit of drawing the reader closer to your character’s viewpoint – which is something I’ve discussed here.

Show your character’s feelings and reactions

Plain statements of how your character feels – ‘Sarah felt angry’ – can be given more depth by showing instead how Sarah reacts. Does she leap to her feet and pace the room? Does she huff and look away? You may need to explore why she’s angry a little later, which brings me to my next point…

Tell when you need to – but don’t over-explain

We won’t understand Sarah’s anger sufficiently just from a description of her reactions. Why is she angry? Is she sensitive about something due to events in her past? Does her mother always wind her up? Is something getting in the way of her achieving the thing that she wants? You need to tell the reader more about Sarah – and there may be other scenarios in which you need to use ‘telling’ to fill out the story for your reader.

But please don’t over-explain – you need to leave something to your reader’s imagination. As readers, I think we all enjoy perceiving what’s happening and having questions to ponder, rather than having all events in the story fully dissected and laid bare. Over-explaining is a bit like telling a joke, then explaining to people why it’s funny. If you do that, the joke’s dead.

How will you know when to show and when to tell? How will you know how much to explain? I’m afraid I don’t have a simple answer. Writing is an art, and as an artist you’ll develop a sense of which techniques to employ to give the effect that you’re looking for. The learning is fun – and the satisfaction you feel when you succeed is wonderful.

Originally posted on 21 July 2020

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