This is the dilemma that most all fiction writers face. Many readers, unless they are writers or editors, probably wonder what the big fuss is all about. “Why are writers always arguing over this?” they ask. What is the big deal, anyway? James Scott Bell defines the issue for us:
Showing is like watching a scene in a movie. All you have is what’s on the screen before you. What the characters do or say reveals who they are and what they’re feeling. Telling, on the other hand, is just like you are recounting the movie to a friend. Which renders a more memorable experience?
Easy enough. Sort of. Some telling is obvious, such as when you describe a character in a grocery list fashion:
Kelly was 5’2″, had long blond hair, blue eyes and always wore black boots.
Try this instead:
When Kelly sat to pull on her black boots, her blond hair fell around her. What a mess it is today. She loved her boots, they made it easy for her to pretend she wasn’t short. Hopefully, she would run into Kane again at work. Yeah, that comment about her blue eyes was a little corny, but hey, at least he noticed.
Both are grammatically correct (though not necessarily high literature), but which sounds more interesting? Which is more like something you would write in second grade? And maybe the second attempt isn’t perfect showing, but it gets you into the head of the character and tells the reader a thing or two about her.
That is one of the keys to show vs. tell: Is the author intruding into the story? Whereas brief telling can transition you quickly from one scene to the next, or can be used to describe a new world, does the latter sound like the author is launching into a documentary? Or does it sound like you are seeing, or possibly seeing, everything through the character’s eyes?
You may have a lot of cool things to tell your reader, but make sure it doesn’t sound like a PBS special. Your character (or the author), even if he is (or you are) a professor, shouldn’t suddenly launch into a chapter length discussion on whales. Wait, didn’t Melville do that in Moby Dick? Telling wasn’t always so taboo, but there is a reason why the whale chapter is the most skipped in that otherwise classic tome. And then there is they way Edgar Rice Burroughs ended his last Pellucidar novel. After all that adventure, we’re going to end it like that?
Here’s something that will help writers: Jeff Gerke has a handy tool for determining if your writing is telling too much. Ask yourself if a camera can see the scene. Could this appear on the screen? If the answers are no, then you have too much telling.
There are writers who argue telling is fine. Others say it’s all a matter of when, where, why and how. Certain genres tend to have more exposition than others. Some telling certainly can come off as poor or lazy writing, especially once you learn to spot it. You’ll be surprised how often you notice it.
One should always try to hone what ever their craft may be, but part of being is writer is deciding what you want to write and how to do it. Not every one will like your work — and you shouldn’t set out to make everyone happy — but immersive books are the ones that stay with people long after the cover is closed.
They’re also ones that readers don’t skip or skim chapters.