Everyone keeps saying that you have to “show” and “never tell”.
What on Earth does this mean??
It took me forever to understand. I mean, years. I never got what it exactly meant.
But now I understand it, and I will tell you exactly with the help of Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass, where he also explains his view on the matter.
The problem with that is the terrible word-choice of “showing”, I believe. I think it should be better explained as “detailing”.
Detail the action in the scene and what is going on instead of only stating the facts.
In my own words:
“Showing” is, as the word says, describing an action. “Telling” is when you simply write down a description that kind of “summarizes” the showing process but makes it less interesting.
Neil Gaiman, in his more professional words, says that telling is direct characterization while showing is indirect.
“Blake hated school. He had no friends and everyone bullied him.”
This would be TELLING. You are simply telling the readers about it. You are not putting any action in the scene, there’s no dialogue, no description. No nothing. You are simply stating a fact from your story.
As showing would be:
“Blake got into the school hall and sighed loudly. He would rather be anywhere in the world but there. He walked towards his lockers but felt someone pushing him, so he was thrown onto the hard floor. He hit his chest and it hurt so much, that tears got into his eyes. He looked up to see two of the boys that bullied him, Henry and Steve. They were big and mean. Not one day passed without Blake getting beaten up.”
You SHOWED the scene to your readers. They can see that he hates the school and that he is bullied.
Neil says that this makes the story much more interesting for the readers than simply stating “he hated the school”. It created action, and conflict, and the readers started asking questions. Why is he bullied? What will he do?
And that is what makes people keep turning the page.
Show Not Tell Examples: Should I ALWAYS SHOW and NEVER TELL?
This is the part that I don’t see anywhere, no one saying that. People are always saying to show, show, show, show.
Neil Gaiman and I agree that this is not only impossible but gets boring after a while.
You saw how telling can make things quicker. You got the message across in two sentences, while showing took you a whole paragraph.
Balance is the word.
You have to both show AND tell. In the right moments, for the right purposes: advancing the story.
When the scene is really important in a way that it will create tension, it will solve a problem, it will make the plot go forward, you should show.
When you are simply describing, for example, where the character is or if you only want to give quick information and facts, tell.
If you decided to show the whole of London in your book, it would take you a whole book for that. You can tell me about the city.
However, if your characters are kissing in a romance book, the reader really wants to SEE the thing. If you write simply: “They kissed. It was nice.” The reader will get extremely disappointed. Show us. They kissed, but HOW? “She got closer, her hand running from his neck to his hair. She could feel how he smelled like mint and it make her want to giggle, but she held herself from doing so. It was very nice that he thought about getting a mint cough drop before they kissed like he had been preparing for this moment all along…”
Much better, right?
It’s all about the right moment of doing both things, showing and telling.
Also, you have to take into consideration the story’s pacing. If it’s going faster or slower. Sometimes, you can’t show because it needs to move really quickly: Keys. Car. Fire. The house was on fire.
The character needs to get out of there as quickly as possible. If you were to describe getting the keys above the table, opening the door, or running through the garden… it would ruin the pacing!
This is also a matter of your style. In the end, you decide what you want the reader to feel but you have to know what you’re doing.
It always has to have the purpose of advancing the story toward the end.