If you’ve been writing for a while, or have spoken to a writer, or have taken a writing class, or generally been alive and around literate people during the past few decades, you’ve probably heard somebody say “show, don’t tell.”
This means that you want to show readers the action of a novel, or the steps leading to a conclusion in a nonfiction book, rather than simply summarizing the information.
This is good advice. But not always.
Here’s an addendum to the “show, don’t tell” rule: You don’t have to show everything.
Nonfiction writers who did a lot of research on their book typically want to share that research with their readers. But unless it’s crucial to the reader’s understanding of your argument, you don’t need to include a step-by-step analysis of everything you learned. You need to show your work, but only for information that is germane to the discussion at hand.
For fiction authors, there’s an equally simple guideline: If it’s exciting, show it. If not, tell it. Character went to the grocery store and bought milk? Boring. Summarize it. Character went to the grocery store and got mugged? Exciting. Show it.
So what’s the difference between showing and telling? How do you do one or the other?
Showing something to a reader means you take them step by step through the events (or logical steps in an argument) as it progresses. You connect each moment and each thought to the next in real time. If somebody says a line of dialogue, it appears in quotation marks with “[character] said” next to it. If somebody moves somewhere, thinks something, or sneezes, it appears as it happens. In nonfiction, you give a step by step case supporting your point, taking the reader through the argument from ground up. You provide evidence. You counter potential criticisms. You show the reader why you concluded what you did.
Telling something to a reader is a quick and dirty way to get information across. There’s no dialogue, no descriptions of actions, no sense of each moment passing as it happens. Instead of writing out a conversation, you say, “They had a conversation.” Instead of describing each sword parry and thrust, you say, “They fought.” (Please don’t do that. If your book has a sword fight in it, that deserves to be shown.) For nonfiction, you simply tell the reader what you want them to know and move on. (This works well if your point is something that everyone already agrees upon, e.g. “The sky is blue,” or is part of a hypothetical exercise, e.g. “Assume for a moment that XYZ is true.”)
In fiction, the danger of telling versus showing is that you leave out the best moments of your story. Events that change a character’s perspective, personality, or opinions allow the reader to bond with them and experience those changes vicariously. That’s good stuff, and you don’t want to leave it on the cutting room floor.
In nonfiction, the danger is that you will lose credibility with your reader if you simply expect them to agree with you on a point that you haven’t fully supported.
In both genres, the danger of showing something that you ought to have told is the same: It’s boring. Most readers will forgive a few tangents here and there, but you need to choose which pieces to show and which to tell in order to keep the reader focused on what’s important.
There’s no magical way to know which pieces of a book should be shown and which should be told. That depends on you, Author, and the information you want to stand out to your readers. If it’s important, show. If not, tell. Trust your gut on this during your first draft. And as always, keep writing!
How do you decide which parts to show and which to tell? Share your thoughts in the comments!
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Your book is as long as: Macbeth by William Shakespeare