…never tell us a thing if you can show us, instead…
On Writing, Stephen King
Stephen King should know but have you heard ‘show, don’t tell’ so often it’s become something of a cliche?
If you don’t follow this advice at all times, you are described as inexperienced.
You know the benefits of showing rather than telling. Showing, as in writing a scene that demonstrates characters’ emotions, motivations and conflicts, allows the reader to feel what the characters feel. It allows him to empathise. He must work out what is happening instead of simply being told. Slowing the pace in this way heightens tension and highlights the importance of the scene to the rest of the story.
But if you only show and never tell, your story could end up reading like a soap opera script.
‘Was that a knock at the door?’ she said.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘Who was it?’
‘Your long lost father.’
‘You mean, my father who disappeared at sea twenty-five years ago after my mother died in childbirth causing me to be put in an orphanage has finally found me?’
Okay, I exaggerate to make a point. The point is that telling also has an important function in the story. Telling allows the reader to rest from the escalating tension and the writer to summarize information that the reader needs to know before the next big scene. Telling complements showing.
The best stories have light and shade, tragedy and comedy, drama and rest. The best stories both show and tell.
Think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Elizabeth tried to join in her father’s pleasantry, but could only force one most reluctant smile. Never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her.
‘Are you not diverted?’
‘Oh! yes. Pray read on.’
Even the cover of this picture book tells, as well as shows, that guinea pigs have moved into Longbourn.
What about something more contemporary from The Secret River by Kate Grenville?
The Alexander, with its cargo of convicts, had bucked over the face of the ocean for the better part of a year.
As the dawn began to make shapes, Thornhill could see Ned crouched against the half-deck, his chin sunk on his chest, and hear his familiar snores. Smasher was alert, moving from man to man and whispering. He came to Thornhill last. Get the men first, he hissed. Then we clean up the breeders.
Based on these examples, it seems that the issue for writers is not so much about whether to show or to tell, but when to show and when to tell.
How do you know when to show and when to tell?