The adage, “Show, don’t tell,” gets thrown at writers quite frequently in my experience. What often goes unmentioned is the fact that telling is inevitable in coherent fiction. Take, for instance, the following six word story, which Ernest Hemingway reportedly wrote in response to a bar room challenge:
For sale: baby shoes, never used.
Even though the above example is textbook “showing,” we are actually told several things—that a sale is being held, that baby shoes are the salable object, and that they have never been worn. What then is meant by telling, and what is meant when instructors say not to do it?
There are different ways of defining the issue, but I look at it in the following way: Telling is the simple relation of facts in a direct way—actions, descriptions, emotions, etc. This type of telling occurs all of the time and can’t really be avoided. Showing is the space between the lines—the depth of meaning beyond what is printed on the page.
Look at Hemingway’s story again. Yes, he is telling, informing us of a baby shoe sale. But there are things he is not telling at the same time.
Hemingway’s story has depth because the things he doesn’t tell us are actually the most important. The hope of the pregnancy, the preparation for the baby’s arrival, the baby’s death, the parents’ heartbreak—these are what the story is all about, yet he tells us none of them. Instead, he shows them by picking a minute detail to convey those events and feelings.
When you want to give a scene depth, you need to do the same thing. Instead of writing, “Bob is angry,” place that character under the magnifying glass of your imagination and figure out what it looks like when Bob is angry. Then pick out details of his appearance or actions that illustrate or “show” his anger and “tell” the reader about them.
Like a good metaphor, this method asks your reader to identify the connection or similarity between two things. And like metaphors, showing will give your reader a deeper understanding—a deeper feeling—of the emotions your characters are experiencing. The result: a satisfied reader.
Ben Whiting is a full-time English student at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-general editor of the award-winning collegiate publication Marine Creek Reflections. His current writing project, Penumbra, is a contemporary suspense novel that he hopes to finish over the summer.