Why showing is both more and less than telling

Every writer has probably heard the advice, “Show, don’t tell,” but very few teachers can explain what they mean by that. It seems to be one of those “you know it once you know it” topics. Perhaps more importantly, few teachers I’ve encountered could ever tell me why to show instead of telling. In this posting, I hope to do both: I’ll give you a useful rule of thumb for telling the difference between show and tell, and then I’ll go on to explain why we want to do that, and a bit about when we don’t want to.

Contrary to the way I hear this discussed by other writers, I think of showing as being something less than telling, because the key to it, I think, is to actually leave something out. It all comes down to what we’re trying to accomplish with “show” in the first place: immersion, which is what we call it when the reader stops simply taking the word of the author/narrator as gospel and makes decisions for himself, based on the evidence at hand. He engages with the fictive world. He becomes invested, committed, involved.

He becomes immersed.

Readers can hear you talk about the horror of war until the cows come home, and they will know intellectually that war is scary, but it isn’t until you stop talking about it and just let them witness the carnage for themselves that an entirely different reaction kicks in. This is what television did to war reporting, or what films like Saving Private Ryan did for movie-going audiences. I know I still find Spielberg’s re-creation of the storming of Normandy to be some of the most visceral, effecting and effective 20 minutes of film I’ve ever seen. (Not counting actual live, documentary footage, of course.)

The problem is that human beings don’t tend to get emotionally invested in intellectual facts. We are constantly bombarded by messaging, with advertisers, politicians, bosses and customers all trying to tell us what to think, and we’ve become very, very good at not letting the message get through our gruff and suspicious perimeter defences. If you want to bypass those defences and lead people to a specific emotion or conclusion, if you want people fainting in the theater, don’t tell them that incoming mortar fire can tear a person’s arm off. Show them a dazed soldier walking around, looking for his arm. Let the horror be their own decision, because people only really believe the conclusions they reach for themselves.

This kind of showing bypasses the intellect and hits us where we live. It’s more than just subconscious. It’s pre-conscious. It engages us through the inner workings of our animal hind-brains. When we see the evidence and reach our own conclusions about what it means, we don’t choose to respond to it – there is nothing choicy about it – we are forced to respond. The automatic part of our brain cannot tell the difference between fiction and fact. It simply reacts to the facts, and that’s the part of the reader you are trying to reach.

The problem, of course, is that when we tell a writer to show, not tell, that’s not actually what we mean, because all of writing is telling – even the show part. What we really mean is, “Don’t tell me what conclusions to draw. Give me the facts and let me draw the conclusions for myself.” This is exactly why we tell newbie writers not to write things like, “James was a drunken lecher.” Instead, we urge them to write a scene in which James gets drunk and makes inappropriate remarks to a woman friend. The important crux of this is that we must never go the last step for the reader, drawing the conclusion for him. Be as biased as you like in which facts you relate, and in how you describe them, but leave the last step for him. In order for him to be engaged, he must take that one himself.

So this is what I meant when I said that showing is less than telling – it’s about leaving something out. What do you leave out? Well, um, actually, you leave out exactly the part that you were tempted to put in – the part where you summed up the facts and rendered a conclusion from them. At the same time, showing is more than telling, too, because in doing it right, you create a much deeper connection between the reader and your story. Why? Because an important corollary to people only believing conclusions they reach for themselves is that they only become emotionally invested in their own decisions.

So there we are. Stop telling your students to show instead of tell. Instead, tell them to describe actions, but leave the judging to the reader. I’ve found that this phrasing goes a lot further, and creates a lot less confusion.

But I’d love to hear how it works for you.


Putting the spotlight on being IN the spotlight
INCEPTION: How to make a reader feel an emotion

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.