One thing every writer has to grapple with, early on hopefully, is the difference between showing and telling. Maybe this post can help clear some things up for you, should it be your turn to tackle this age-old concept.
It all has to do with how you deliver information.
What is Showing?
Showing is simply inferring crucial information by describing action. That’s it. That’s all showing is. Inferring through action.
Now here’s why that matters.
When we infer things, it does something fun. It allows people to come to conclusions on their own. It lays out a little mystery they can piece together, even if they solve the mystery in a fraction of a second.
This leaves them saying, “I knew it!” Instead of, “Hmm, okay.”
We infer through action specifically because action illustrates setting. Setting is lovely because it grounds the story in something we can visualize. If we wanted to learn without visualizing a scene, we’d read a textbook. People read stories to place themselves as a fly on the wall. To eavesdrop on other people. Or aliens.
Not only does describing action illustrate a setting. It infers it! What could be better than that?
So one last time: Showing is inferring essential information by describing action.
That said, let’s take a scenario and play it out in a few examples.
A nerdy woman has a crush on a hunky guy at the library
There are two bits of information here.
For one, the protagonist has the character trait of being nerdy. Two, she’s attracted to a guy working at the library.
Here are a few ways we could go about delivering this information:
Shitty way #1:
Deliver it through blunt narration.
Jeanna had a crush on the boy from the library. He helped her out a few weeks ago, and they had a very nice moment together. She wanted to ask for his number, but she just didn’t have the courage. The prospect of someone finding out how much of a nerd she was didn’t sit well with her.
Way #1 is is telling.
It didn’t show us anything. It didn't paint a picture. It didn't teleport us to another world, as Stephen King puts it.
There’s just some random narrator we don’t care about (a) describing things without us being able to visualize anything. Robbing our mind’s eye of the joy one finds by reading. And (b) that narrator just handed us a lot of conclusions that we would have loved to come to ourselves.
People love coming to conclusions, even if it’s as small as, ooOOoo, Jeanna’s got a cruUUush."
This option feels so tempting sometimes, but don’t do it! Especially in fiction, where you've spent countless hours building a world we’re proud of. We want people to know that the airlock in the spaceship often can get jammed if certain types of dirt from certain asteroids and planets make their way onto the ship...
But, trust me, people don’t want to hear it.
It’s like cell phones. They’re amazing, but no one has any idea how they work. Moreover, no one cares. I don’t need to understand how engines work to enjoy driving a car.
Shitty way #2:
Deliver it through dialogue.
Jeanna met her friend for coffee.
Jeanna said, “I’m fat. I’m too fat. Hunky library guy‘s never gonna be into a girl like me. He seems nerdy but what if I’m, like, too nerdy for him?”
Shitty way #2 is better because it, aside from having a little more emotion, gives the reader a picture of something. An illustration of some scene that we can actually picture in our mind’s eye. Unfortunately, it showed us the wrong scene.
All we’re picturing is two friends talking about someone else! We’re still just hearing about juicy gossip second hand that we could be seeing.
We can teleport anywhere through the magic of writing! So, why not teleport to the moment everyone really wants to see? The moment involving Jeanna and the hunky librarian.
So remember: Dialogue can be telling’s sn
So remember, dialogue can be telling’s sneaky cousin.
The correct way:
Infer things through describing action.
Jeanna sat at the library desk pretending to read some book on Eastern philosophy.
Like clockwork, when the rugged man shelving books turned to grab another from the rack, she glanced up at him. Stared at his arms and wondered what the odds were that a rugged librarian would be into cosplay girls.
The last example may not be the prize-winning piece of the century, but it does take us into a scene. The correct scene, revealing the juicy love tension. It illustrates the moment in question. Not some random moment of gossip.
Most importantly, it delivers the two pieces of information we needed to deliver:
Jeanna’s nerdy and has a crush.
One last time:
Telling is delivering information through blunt narration and describing the information.
Showing — the good stuff — is inferring information through describing action.
Here are some more examples of Showing vs. Telling in a fun infographic :)