Arguably the most important rule of fiction is the age-old Show, don't tell! Sounds simple, right? And yet many inexperienced (and some not-so-inexperienced) writers struggle with this foundational principle. After all, isn’t all of writing telling? Every word we write is for the express purpose of telling the reader what he’s supposed to imagine. Right?
The simple answer is yes. The not-so-simple answer is yes and no. Personally, I’ve always thought that the “show-and-tell” aphorism was a poor statement, simply because, for a writer, showing and telling both amount to the same thing: explaining a story to the readers.
So what’s the difference?
The Short Explanation:
Telling is summarizing. Telling gives the readers the bare facts, with little to no illustration.
Showing is elaborating. Showing gives the readers the details of a scene, including what the character(s) are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, thinking, and feeling emotionally.
The Long Explanation:
The differences between showing and telling are perhaps best recognized in actual examples. Following are some modified snippets from my fantasy work-in-progress Dreamlander.
Orias ran away from the soldiers. His horse jumped a fallen tree branch. Someone shouted for him to stop. The soldiers halted and aimed their rifles at him.
From behind came the pounding of hoofbeats. Tree branches whipped across Orias’s face and showered his saddle with leaves. He gritted his teeth, his face set in the snarl that had become his protection against an unjust world. They would not catch him. Must not catch him.
He spurred his horse’s bloodied sides, and his fingers itched to reach for the sword sheathed on his back. His blood thundered in his veins, pulsing against the oyster white of his skin, sharpening his reflexes, narrowing his thoughts to razor intensity.
His tired horse stumbled, and the hoofbeats behind drew nearer. Voices shouted: “Stop now! In the name of Mactalde, surrender!”
He spat an oath and ducked another tree branch. Even the man’s name—dead though he was these twenty years—burned through the air like a curse.
Hoofbeats slowed and faded, surpassed by the rapid clatter of rifles rising to aim and the click of bolts locking into place. Orias’s blood congealed in his veins.
The difference, of course, is immediately discernible. The first example gives the reader the necessary facts, but the second example brings those facts to life.
So how does one go about bringing those necessary facts to life? It isn’t a question that can be answered in a sentence or two, simply because all of fiction is about showing. Every step, every trick, every nuance of the fiction craft is for the express purpose of bringing settings and characters to life. No author will ever master the art of showing, simply because no author will ever master the art of fiction. Perfection in this area, as in all others, is something we’re all striving for.
Hence, the obvious answer to our question is simply to keep honing every area of your craft. If you can improve just one minor area of plot or character development, you will also have improved your mastery of showing. That said, however, I do have a few more particular suggestions for concentrating on this heartbeat of the craft.
1) Focus on the senses. Probably the easiest way to bring life into a scene is to concentrate on one or all of the five senses. Tell the reader what the character sees or smells. If your scene is set in the middle of a summer rainstorm, mention the smell of wet asphalt and the shimmer of oil in a mud puddle.
Instead of merely saying that your character walked into a flower shop—and leaving the details for the reader to fill in—show us what the character encounters. Tell us about the ring of the bell over the entrance, talk about the splashes of scarlet and yellow, the perfumed air. Use your imagination, dig deep for little, telling details that will make the scene “pop” in the reader’s imagination.
Of course, you certainly don’t want to go overboard with your descriptions. Especially in our television-fueled days, most readers aren't patient enough to thumb through pages of description (no matter how lifelike). Instead, you have to select a handful of the most important details and scatter them throughout your action and dialogue.
2) Utilize vivid language. Specificity is the life’s blood of fiction. You can write about a character who is walking down the street—but how much more evocative is it to talk about him shuffling down an alley or promenading down the aisle? Use specific verbs and nouns, and tastefully select only modifiers that share important facts.
Before I close, I should make note that telling is not without its place in fiction. Not every scene or action needs to be fully dramatized. Relatively unimportant scenes can be summarized, recaps of information (such as when your character is telling another character information with which the reader is already familiar) can be brushed over, and unsavory details can be avoided.
Once you acquire the habit of painting on the broader canvas of showing, you’ll find that the art of fiction is more boundless than even you could have imagined.