“Show, don’t tell“ is one of the common writing tips or advice that we often read from any writing-related article. But what does it mean and how do we do it?
Let us say that one of the characters in your story, Prakash, is cruel and violent. You can TELL the readers: Prakash is cruel and violent. But that description doesn’t really say much about Prakash, does it? It just describes Prakash as a cruel and violent man. It doesn’t give you the picture of his cruelty or violence or what makes him cruel and violent.
What if you add one or two sentences like:
He slapped a blind beggar for coming near him. Then he kicked the beggar’s dog for sniffing his shoes.
Do these last two sentences ‘SHOW’ Prakash being cruel and violent? They do!
Let us say the room is creepy. TELLING is writing the room is creepy. SHOWING is describing the room:
The lights keep flickering on and off; the carpet has dark stains, and there seems to be a strange rasping sound coming from the closet.
Providing these details make the readers feel that the room is creepy. These descriptions take them to the story. They get to their senses and they can now visualize the room.
Your character, Susan, is very nervous. You can TELL that she is nervous. But you can SHOW that she is nervous by writing:
She talks too fast and her eyes keep darting around the room; the tea mug shaking in her hands.
Now, can you imagine how Susan feels?
In general, showing is lucid, easier to perceive than telling. It has a better visceral impact.
On the other hand, sometimes it makes sense to TELL instead of showing. If Sandeep is a tailor, you don’t have to show him sitting in front of a sewing machine with a tape measure around his neck. You can just say: He’s a tailor. That gives the information the readers need to know. But, if you describe him as a good tailor, you have to ask yourself what makes him so? Does ‘he’ stitch well? Does he finish his work on time?
Also, there are sections in your stories where showing some mundane but necessary information has no value to the plot/tension/conflict/character arc. In this situation, telling is preferable. For instance, say your character bought a house in the suburb. Rather than investing a few pages showing every aspect of the sale from finding the agent, coordinating the paperwork, closing the sale –you quickly tell that this way:
Mr and Mrs Keller bought a three-bedroom bungalow and soon the entire family moved in.
Showing means we should be able to answer these kinds of questions:
Why should the reader think that Sandeep is a good tailor?
Why should the reader think that Prakash is cruel and violent?
What makes the room creepy?
Why should the reader think that Susan is very nervous?
Remember though that it is a mistake to take “show, don’t tell” as unbreakable. Great writing is a balance between telling and showing and knowing when to use which when in your story.