“Show, don’t tell” is common phrase that attempts to oversimplify a complex topic. “Show” and “Tell” are both essential for good writing. They represent complimentary techniques for writing prose. It is true that telling is often easier, and as a result it’s frequently over used, but both have their place in writing.
Telling in a Nutshell
If writing is the art of using words to convey meaning, then telling is the technique of blatantly stating the meaning directly. “He was mean.” “She was nice.” “It was hot outside.” Few words have been used and the meaning is clear, but the significance of the meaning is left vague. Audiences know what the character thinks and feels, but almost nothing about the object of those thoughts and feelings. No concrete information has been revealed.
Telling is also very passive experience for the audience. Audiences don’t have to think to understand the meaning of the text. They simply absorb it.
Showing in a Nutshell
Showing, in contrast, is an indirect approach. Showing implies meaning through details. “Rain pelted the windows.” “He cradled the dog in his arms.” “She hummed softly as she worked.” By themselves, these phrases could mean many things. Perhaps he likes dogs, or perhaps he is a nice person. Perhaps she is a diligent worker, or perhaps music is an important aspect of her life.
As audiences learn more, the range of possible meanings narrows, until audiences are able to reach a conclusion. However, showing is not limited to a single meaning, and often carries multiple implications. It’s possible for the protagonist to like dogs and be a nice person.
Continue reading…Show & Tell (1/3)