Kathryn Page Camp
Why could Barnum and Bailey bill their circus as “The Greatest Show on Earth?” Because it was a feast for the eyes. They let the performers show the world what they could do. If Barnum and Bailey had turned it into a radio show, their fame would have been fleeting at best.
That’s also the difference between showing and telling when reading or writing fiction. Although the words are on a page rather than in a ring or on a stage, the reader still wants to “see” the action in his or her mind’s eye, not merely “hear” it with the reader’s inner ears. Or, as writers phrase it, “Show, don’t tell.”
Actually, this is a good technique for all writing. But it’s essential in fiction and creative non-fiction.
In Revision & Self-Editing, James Scott Bell describes the distinction this way.
Showing is like watching a scene in a movie. All you have is what’s on the screen before you. What the characters do or say reveals who they are and what they’re feeling.
Telling, on the other hand, is just like you’re recounting the movie to a friend.
Here’s an example. Let’s assume you are writing a children’s story about two boys who start out as enemies but later become friends. It’s near the beginning of the book, and the two boys get into a fight. You could write it this way:
Brian was mad at Jason and beat him up.
Or you could write it this way:
Brian rushed at Jason, knocked him down, and punched him in the face over and over. By the time a teacher separated the two boys, Jason’s nose was bleeding and his left eye was swollen shut.
In the second example, I didn’t tell you that Brian was mad at Jason. Nor did I tell you that Brian beat Jason up. But you knew it because you saw it.
Which is more interesting? I’m willing to bet that you preferred the second.
Of course, every writer needs to tell at times. Otherwise, novels would be longer than the Great Wall of China.
So how do you know what to show and what to tell?
If a scene is important to either plot or characterization, you should show it. And to quote James Scott Bell again, “the more intense the moment, the more showing you do.”
Telling usually works better for transitions between scenes. As readers, we may need to know that your protagonist left her office and went home. But you don’t usually need to show her walking out the door, waiting for the bus, climbing into the bus, watching for her street, getting off the bus, and walking in the door. “Jean left the office and went home” is telling, but it gets her from one place to another without boring the reader along the way.
Don’t get fanatical about the distinction, however. Even most showing scenes include some telling. In the example above, why do you know that a teacher separated the boys? Because I told you. Another option would have been to say “a teacher pulled Brian away,” and we could spend years debating whether that phrase is showing or telling. There is nothing wrong with telling something in the middle of your scene if the reader needs to know it but it isn’t otherwise important to the story.
Ron Rozelle’s book Description and Setting explains the purpose of showing as “to let your reader experience things rather than to be told about them, to feel them rather than have them reported to him.”
That’s why Life of Pi is one of my favorite books. As I was reading it, my mind saw the violence of the wind and the waves on stormy days and the brightness of the sun on calm ones. But it went even deeper. The stormy days also had me hearing the roar of the wind, tasting the salt spray as the ocean pummeled the boat, and trembling as the small craft rose to the crest of each towering wave and dropped into the seemingly bottomless trough between them. And the calm days had me sweltering in the heat and smelling fish rotting in the sun. That’s what your writing should do.
Too much telling can make a good story boring, and knowing how and when to show can make a mediocre story great.
So go out and write the greatest show on earth.
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The picture at the top of this post is a painting by Italian artist Gaetano Lodi, who was born in 1830 and died in 1886.