Showing vs. Telling

*Warning: The following essay contains spoilers from a recently released motion picture. If you are planning on seeing said movie and don’t want it ruined, please refrain from reading this post. If you’ve seen this movie or don’t care either way, then go on. I only spoil the first ten minutes or so anyway, so if you’re not too fussy, it probably won’t ruin too much of the movie anyway.

Not too long after I got back from my study abroad trip to Europe, my roommate and I went to go see Maleficent, which had just been released at that point. Early on in the movie though, there were a couple of things that my roommate and I had trouble with. Particularly the use of narration to tell the audience of Maleficent’s relationship to Stefan rather than actually showing how it developed. It actually made it really hard to get to know the characters and in the end, and the movie was less enjoyable than it could’ve been (though the CGI was rather amazing).

The example above is an example of showing vs. telling, which in my experience is one of the harder aspects of writing to master and one of the most difficult to teach. Yet it is vital for writers to learn to differentiate between the two and find the right balance of both showing and telling, because without being able to find some sort of balance, it makes for less entertaining stories.

Here’s an example of too much telling: Bob walked into an old house. There he encountered a beautiful woman who was really a witch. She stole his youth and he became an old man and died while she became beautiful and younger.

Now besides being dull, what can be said about this story? Very little, really. Your mind may have created an old house, a beautiful woman casting spells, Bob turning into an old man, but what else did it do? Nothing. You don’t get any detail about how we know the house is old, or how we know the beautiful woman was beautiful or a witch. We’re not shown how she steals Bob’s youth, or if he has any youth to give! He could really be middle-aged, for all we know. And why did he go into the house in the first place? Did he know about the witch?

Some writers call this the camera test. If you can’t build a picture in your mind with the information given to you in the text, then there’s too much telling and there needs to be more showing.

So what is showing? Basically it’s the meat of your story. Think of the telling as the barebones of your story, or what you would use in a summary of your novel. The showing is the dialogue, the details that paint the picture, the emotions and the exchanges, the tension and the moments of insight where you really get a sense of who the characters are and what happens to them in the course of the story.

In the example I used above, showing would involve us learning about why Bob went into the house in the first place. We would know what made the house old, as well as what the atmosphere around the house is like. Maybe there’s an oppressive air about the place, like a funeral that never seems to end. Perhaps there are dead trees and faded grass and it’s late in the evening, giving it a further creepy feel.

Once inside the house, we would find out what Bob experiences while in the house up until he meets the witch. We’d know what he’d think of the witch, if they exchanged any dialogue, and if he had any warning bells telling him to flee. Finally we’d see how the witch would take Bob’s youth, what it was like for him to lose his youth, and how the witch uses the stolen youth. If the author told the story right, we’d be able to picture all this with great clarity, and the story would have the required amount of showing and telling.

I know I just gave this example with a lot of telling and exposition, but you get the idea.

So along with the camera test, what are some other ways to gain a better understanding of showing vs. telling? Luckily as authors, we can go right to our favorite books to gain an understanding. Look at books you’ve enjoyed as well as books you hate. See how the author handled showing the story vs. telling the story, or how they didn’t handle it. You can also look for some articles on showing vs. telling, of which there are probably many besides this one (there’s a great one from Writer’s Digest that I found). And when you’ve done enough reading, try practicing telling and showing. Show it to someone if you feel comfortable and get their feedback. With practice, you can get very good at finding the balance of showing vs. telling.

Now using some exposition is necessary at times in stories while at other times there are passages where there is just too much information in the passage and a quick summary would be better. But one has to figure out where these passages belong themselves. And once you do, (pardon the pun) it will definitely show in your work.

Not to mention, we’ll actually come away with a better understanding of that maxim that writers, editors, and agents love to throw at their pupils: show, don’t tell. I’ve had one or two lessons with teachers where I wished they’d show me what they meant and not just tell it to me!