“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.
Trying to understand the meaning behind the text helps the audience to actively engage the story. They develop their own theories about the meaning, creating a more active, personal experience.
Using Show & Tell Effectively
Good storytelling is, among other things, a matter of management. Audiences want to reach the good parts, but those moments only have value if the story and the audience spend the time to invest in the story, creating a sense of meaning and significance. Audiences need to understand how and why the conflict matters.
Think of the climax to any story: Frodo’s struggle to do what is right in Lord of the Rings, or Darth Vader’s temptation of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy. What makes these scenes powerful is the time audiences have spent with the characters; getting to know them, investing in their journey. Audiences only care about the outcome because the story took the time to take them on this journey, providing them with essential information that helps audiences connect with the characters and appreciate the importance of their conflicts.
In any narrative there are sections that aren’t very interesting: Luke’s training, Frodo’s long journey. Audiences need to know that these events happened, but they’re not very interesting. Instead of forcing audiences to slog through every step of the character’s journey, the story only tells the audience the essentials.
Similarly, there are times in the story where audiences want to slow down and savor the moment. These are the scenes that matter: where characters deepen, conflicts come to a head, and meaning becomes clear. When Jack realizes the full significance of Tyler Durden (Fight Club). When Vin finally understands who she is and stops relying on others to reaffirm her identity (Mistborn).
Recognize what the audiences need to know and tell it. Recognize what audiences care about, and show it.
When & How to Tell