The old chestnut of every creative writing teacher is “Show, don’t tell”, but they rarely give you much else. If you always show, won’t all your stories be insanely long? Yes, they will. Showing every last detail of information is just bad writing and bad advice. Showing can become overwhelming, overbearing, and will bog down the narrative of your story. Once upon a time, I was in love with this style of writing typically found in Romanticism like Novalis. It doesn’t work to modern sensibilities, unfortunately. If we’re really going to get the most out of this maxim, then we need to get to the heart of it.
Show important things, tell unimportant things.
Important pieces of your story demand to be shown. People don’t want you to tell them about an amazing battle and how it was won. They want you to show it to them because it’s an important battle. If it’s not important, then just tell them to get to the important pieces. To distinguish importance, you need to find your theme, your core and hone in on it. While you’re outlining your story, find the important parts which connect to the core and the unimportant parts which can be told.
Show emotional things, tell unemotional things.
The only way to get to the core of an emotion is to experience it. And to do that, you have to show your reader the emotion. I think that’s fairly self-explanatory. However, when something is not meant to be emotional or is something that yo don’t need to focus on, then just tell the audience. That’s okay. Telling an unemotional piece of information isn’t going to hurt anyone and it’ll probably speed along the narrative.
Show major plot points.
One mistake I made writing was thinking I could just tell about what happened in a conclusion rather than showing it. In other words, I showed the climax but told the resolution. Every major plot point must be shown no matter what. If you tell a plot point, then your story won’t work and your reader will feel either disappointed or cheated.
Tell the introduction, show the middle.
I’ll admit this isn’t always true. Sometimes it’s okay to tell when you open up a book, a paragraph, or a chapter. But don’t let it last too long. As you ease into the main meat of the subject, start showing more and more until it feels like you’ve been showing the entire time.
Show the present, tell the backstory.
Again, this is another “gray area.” Showing the present is always recommended. Sometimes, however, a backstory might be so extensive, you don’t have time to get into it by showing all of it. Telling a backstory is perfectly fine as long as you do it in a creative way and make sure it doesn’t feel like forced exposition. Arguably, showing the backstory might prove to be a more powerful vehicle for the theme of the character, but when you’re in a time crunch narratively speaking, it’s better to give something rather than nothing at all.
Tell then show.
For so long, writers have been given an either/or scenario. And the “or” has always been the “bad option.” But what if writing wasn’t so dichotomous? I’d recommend using the “layered” approach to these techniques rather than using one over the other. In other words, tell first, then show it. Why is this beneficial? As an author, unless you want total ambiguity (which I wouldn’t recommend), cementing certain themes in the reader’s mind gives the story more gravitas. However, a word of caution, do not show immediately after telling. If you tell at the beginning of the story, make sure to gradually show the truth you’ve communicated over the entire story.
In the end, be smart about how you show in your writing. Yes, showing is a powerful technique but it’s not by itself going to be your saving grace. Use it wisely at the appropriate times and it’ll benefit you.