Anyone who’s spent five minutes in a writing group has heard it: that’s telling. You need to show it.
I bet the writers among us are groaning a little. Everyone else is scratching their heads.
Let’s start with the basics.
Telling occurs when you, well, tell the readers what’s happening.
Tim was angry.
Showing gives clues to whatever it is that is to be told without explicitly saying it, forcing the reader to infer.
Tim gritted his teeth and heat rushed to his face. He clenched his fist, digging his nails into his palm as his heart raced.
See? I didn’t say he was angry. But you can infer that he was. Showing is super effective when describing emotions because it connects the character with our humanity.
For some writers, Show Don’t Tell has become a die-hard theology. It’s become the Golden Rule to which all other writing rules bow. Fail this, and your career will lay in utter shambles.
I’m here to tell you that sometimes, sometimes, telling is okay.
Calm down. Get a drink of water. It’ll be all right.
I’m not saying showing isn’t important. It is. A book of all telling would be boring as hell. Readers wouldn’t be able to connect with a character and go along with the experiences of said character without showing.
Telling: Tim was running late for school.
Showing: Tim yanked his backpack up from the floor and bolted out the door. The rear of the school bus shrank in the distance. Panting, he stopped running, kicked the ground, and swore.
Done right (and I’m not saying this thing I typed out in ten seconds is), we can feel Tim’s frustration. We’ve all run late for something in the past. This experience allows us to connect with him.
However, some things are better left just told.
Telling: Tim ate his ham sandwich as he walked to the art room.
Showing: Tim sank his teeth into the soft bread. The cold ham and sharp cheddar rolled around in his mouth, making him salivate.
Anyone else especially interested in Tim’s digestive process? No?
Unless this story is about the travels of Tim’s sandwich, the extra details are unnecessary.
Telling: Tim climbed the stairs to his room.
Showing: Tim placed a foot on the first carpeted step, then lifted his other foot to the next step, alternating feet and steps until he reached the second floor.
I’m pretty sure 100% of everyone knows what it means to climb stairs. Showing how it’s done isn’t necessary.
In other news – writing out a mundane task such as this is harder than you might think. Try it. Use brushing your teeth.
So you officially have permission to tell instead of show. Sometimes.