The writing advice of “show don’t tell” has been passed around by writing instructors and writers for a long time. But what does it mean? Is there a formula to tell you when chances are good that you’re telling, rather than showing. And what is the downside of showing too much. Is there one. To start off this blogpost I’ll answer those questions and go into more detail. Yes, yes, and yes.
The first question of whether there is a formula for telling is true. I’ve found that sentences that follow the structure of “[subject] emotion (noun)” and “[Subject] ‘to be’ verb (emotion)” are tells. For example, the lines “Harry loved Hogwarts” and Harry was hating his time at the Dursleys” are both tells because they are statements rather than actions. Actions are shows and statements are tells. That’s a basic understanding of the difference between the show and tell spectrum.
Spectrum? That’s right, just like the continuum of discovery writers and outliners, showing and telling fall along the same spectrum. Sometimes telling is the best way to go about writing your description. On the show side, there’s a tendency to be vague and making the reader feel uncertain about a character. For myself it’s making sure the reader knows my characters motivation. Extreme telling is something that I imagine most writers do too much when starting out. I know I did. The story in that case reads like a textbook. As a writer, finding the balance between showing and telling is key for descriptions.
A common misunderstanding is that people think showing=visual. As many writers have said, using other senses besides sight will immerse the reader more into the story. Showing doesn’t have to be visual. As i said before, if you’re showing, you are using actions. Describing your world, even if its the most beautifully written paragraph will still be a tell.