We’ve all heard that old advice, show, don’t tell. It is often repeated like a complete thought. It encapsulates the idea that showing the reader what’s important through the events of the story is a far more engaging method of storytelling than telling the reader what’s essential. In a work written for commercial markets, the reader’s experience matters more than the author’s good intentions.
Telling is a passive act that only asks the reader to either remember something is important for later, or it’s needed to explain what the reader wasn’t given enough pieces to figure out. Yet nothing gets a faster eye-roll than suggesting to a group of writers that showing is vital in modern storytelling. They’re well-versed in pointing out that not everything needs to be established as though the phrase is absolute and any exception disproves it.
Three Groups of Writers
Most writers know the importance of showing over telling and they fall into one of these three groups:
The first consists of writers who can give the reader an engaging story that sets up a climax so that when things get past the point of no return, the reader understands why the stakes matter. They don’t need any part of it explained through telling. Most professional writers come from this group.
The second group consists mostly of professional creative writing instructors. It is extremely difficult to fuel a story’s fire with anything but the conflict the first group shows well. This group are the ones who prove they don’t need high conflict scenes to create tension for the readers. Some of them don’t even need tension except internal obstacles and this is what most of what we would consider literary fiction to be.
The third group of writers believe show don’t tell means all telling is fine if it’s done well. They are not helped when they are taught that their intentions for the work is more important than showing the character moving through a world where their own actions stand between two possible fates. Showing the reader those actions allows the author to show that something bigger is happening when the character doesn’t have enough knowledge to see the big picture yet.
Seeing Is Believing
The solution to any problem is seeing it first. For anyone in the third group who knows showing is a rule and rules can be broken, try the following exercise:
Copy and paste the first three chapters or an entire story into a new document. Highlight all the dialogue, including the dialogue tags and reactions in blue.
Turn all the description red.
Turn all the exposition yellow. This includes when the character explains what they already know or looks up a reference. If they had to go to the library, make it yellow. If they had to resurrect the librarian, or the protagonist must ask the clerk who makes their tongue stick to the bottom of the mouth, leave it black. Exposition the character had to learn to know is fine.
What remains unchanged should be what the character does independently of what they’ve told the reader through narration. It excludes what they saw, said, knew, or read. In a well-told story, what is in black must still take a well-read reader on an interesting journey, unless what is in color is genre-defining. Enough stories in the slush can do both parts well. Editors in any paying market don’t need to settle for less.
My MFA instructors tried to teach me that even writing in commercial genres, it doesn’t matter if writers tell everything through exposition and dialogue. But what is told is in the past tense to be told. What is shown is experienced. Plot points told are just flagged as important. Plot points shown to the reader need to have significance attached to it from the reader’s side of the page because the character won’t know what they’re looking at until they have the hindsight to do it with.
Can what is significant be shown if most of the story is dialogue? Yes. Are readers primed to guess everything in a conversation as possibly significant even if it doesn’t seem to be at the time? Also yes.
A character that gets upset when shown through their actions as being calm under pressure is significant to the reader without needing to be told. They’ll read more to find out what set them off. A character that says, “I never get upset!” is probably lying. A character that says, “They never get upset,” sounds contrived.
Show Unreliable Narrators
You just can’t trust what they say, know or see. There’s a good chance a lot of them are dead. In fiction, showing is believing, and even that can be manipulated.
Megan Whalen Turner’s brilliant novel, The Thief, has a first-person narrator that plays fair with the reader and still manages to knock their socks off with what was really going on the whole time. It’s brilliant and mostly done through dialogue.
A writer can ask themselves a simple question: If the story revolves around a character needing to grow to overcome their challenges we need to ask ourselves – have I shown my readers everything they need to understand why the character got where they did, even if the character never comes to that realization?
If character growth isn’t what’s driving the story, every writer still needs to ask:
How do I make what my ideal reader needs to understand to make the climax as meaningful and engaging as possible?
Anything told to the reader must be filtered through a character’s subjective opinion of the matter. That can remove them so far from reality that even when something happens in front of them, they can still misunderstand it. Only the actions of the characters speak to the reader.
There is no foundational structure more important than showing the reader what’s happening before all the pieces come together for the character to see it too. Writers who became famous for their skill at doing so called it “show, don’t tell.”
A great story asks nothing of the reader but to sit back and enjoy the ride. An engaging one asks readers to pay attention. But great moments in fiction show the reader more than what is limited by the character’s current understanding. This only happens if the author has shown the reader aspects of the story that exist independent of the character’s understanding.