“Show, don’t tell.” What exactly does that mean? How does one show what is happening instead of just telling? What are the benefits of doing so?
Telling is easy.
The room was bare.
Showing takes just a bit of thought, a bit of description, and sometimes a bit of conversation.
The sun peeked through the dirt encrusted windows onto a dusty wooden floor. Huge cobwebs hung low from the ceiling. No couch or chair to relax in after a hard day’s work awaited whoever came home. No shelves full of books to read or television to watch caused Henry to think this would be a great place to hide out.
What are the benefits of showing instead of simply telling? First of all, it will be more memorable. In the above examples, which one would you be more likely to remember? I’m willing to bet that you would be more likely to remember the second one, the one that leaves you wondering just who or what Henry wants to hide from.
What does the above paragraph tell you about the room? The room is bare, yes, but there is also dirt encrusted around the windows and the floor is dusty. There is no furniture, no television, no books in the room. It is pretty obvious that no one has lived there for quite some time. A few well-placed adjectives can keep you from having to write long, boring descriptions that may cause the reader to want to put down the book. Or the reader might have a habit of just skipping over the 'boring' parts.
When you get one of your characters to describe another person or a place, this is called half show-half tell. Instead of saying,
People began to talk about Henry because he stole Mrs. Frobisher’s jewels,
you could half show-half tell. This is done through the conversations of your characters.
Imogene grabbed hold of Mary as she walked by. “Did you hear what Henry did? The police arrested him for stealing Mrs. Frobisher’s jewelry, the stuff her uncle left her in his will. The idiot left his hat behind for the police to find."
When you show instead of tell, another benefit is that the reader becomes more involved in the story. He actually feels as though he is one of the characters. When the character is hurt, the reader feels hurt. When the character cries, the reader sympathizes and may even cry along with the character. When the character feels joy, the reader will smile along with him and be happy. In other words, the reader becomes emotionally involved with the story. Once this happens, he will find it nearly impossible to put the book down.
Showing instead of telling is great, just be careful not to overdo it. You need to pick what you show and what you tell.
A telephone rings. Unless it is pertinent to the story, the telephone just rings.
The dishes are washed. Again, unless there is something about washing the dishes that is vital to the story, the dishes are just washed.
Too much showing and you run the risk of boring your reader, especially if things that are not pertinent to the story are described in too much detail. You obviously use more words when you show.
To practice showing and not telling, try ‘showing’ things around you on paper. Show a dog playing with a Frisbee, an elderly lady with visual problems grocery shopping, a disabled man or woman climbing a steep set of stairs, a frustrated mother with a crying baby, and a husband celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, now deceased. Feel free to post your exercises in the forum.