“Show, don’t tell” is perhaps the most the famous, or infamous, instruction for writers. This reputation is deserved, as the phrase manages to be both absolutely right and dead wrong at the same time. It’s a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, and knowing whether the rule is dead or alive, in a manner of speaking, can significantly boost your writing.
Let’s first define our terms. To show is to render the action live on the page; when you show, the reader can see it happening right now. To tell is to summarize what happened, or to describe something that can’t be seen, such as thoughts.
On a sentence level, the cat lives: “show, don’t tell” is a fundamental truth. Rather than telling your reader “she was happy,” show her walking sprightly down the street, whistling, greeting passersby who look at her strangely. Have her call out, “Isn’t the day glorious?”
On a scene level, the cat’s dead: we must use both showing (here, known as being in immediate scene) and telling (also known as exposition). Here’s why: we don’t read just to see what happens; we read to see how characters experience what happens. That experience is both external—action you can see on the page—and internal—the world of the mind.
The balance of showing and telling on the scene level varies by genre—for instance, literary fiction and memoir will have more exposition than thrillers and mysteries. This balance will also vary widely inside a single book, because this is how writers control pacing. Showing moves the story forward in real time. Exposition (telling) is time travel: it lets us skip over the dull bits (car rides, baths, staring out of windows), flash back to an earlier time, or stop time entirely so that we can sit and listen to a character think.
This is easy to see for yourself. Open a novel or memoir and read a passage. Use a pencil to underline any exposition, while leaving the immediate scene plain. See how it goes back and forth? Repeat with another scene or two. Now, read those scenes and pay attention to the pacing. Note that the better it’s done, the less you notice it.
So: remember Schrödinger when you write, and know which “show, don’t tell” cat you’re playing with. On a sentence level, the cat purrs when you show action and emotion instead of telling. On a scene level, let the cat go: mix the showing and telling and step through your story at a pace you control—elegantly, maybe even invisibly to the reader, on ghost cat feet.
STUDY SCENES WITH PAUL: Paul Reali leads the four-week “Scene Studio” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace deep dive into what makes scenes work in novels, short stories, and memoirs. Begins Sunday, October 18, 2020. More info
ABOUT PAUL: Paul Reali, co-founder of Charlotte Lit, is the co-author of Creativity Rising: Creative Thinking and Creative Problem Solving in the 21st Century. In addition, his work has been published in the Winston-Salem Journal, InSpine, Office Solutions, Lawyers Weekly, and others. His fiction has been awarded first place in the Elizabeth Simpson Smith and Ruth Moose Flash Fiction competitions, and he received a Regional Artist Project Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council in 2018. Paul has an M.S. in Creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, where he is the managing editor of ICSC Press.