Show & Tell (or not)

The “show, don’t tell” discourse has come around again as it does, and this time I have a little something to add. I want to thank Maria Heater and Ian Martinez Cassmeyer for inspiring me.

It’s been pointed out that this isn’t an absolute. It’s not “ALWAYS show, NEVER tell.” It’s more a case of “explain when it’s needed, and when it isn’t, describe.” Background is often best done by telling/explaining. Give the reader what they need to understand! Don’t let them flail around in the dark while you “show” them. Tell them, straight up. “The flight was late, and by the time he left the jetway he was moving at a dead run.” I don’t need to know he’s feeling his heart pound while he’s running. You’ve told me he’s late. That’s good information, presented as it needs to be. Describing the entire sequence of movements from jetway to ride-share pickup point would be tedious as hell. Just explain it and get on with the story. (Now, it’s possible that something important to the story happens during his dash for the Uber. Then, maybe we need some describing. It’s a balancing act!)

I usually end up reminding clients to “show, don’t tell” when they’re overusing filter language. Don’t tell me or your other readers what someone feels. Show me how they feel it. (Or hear it, or smell it, or taste it, or see it.) “She felt cold.” Yippee. She needs to put on a coat. “The gusts of driving sleet bit through her parka as if it were a windbreaker.” NOW I’m there with her.

Or: “He was nervous.” Poor guy. “Droplets of cold sweat dripped down the back of his neck, soaking into his shirt.” Is he at an interview? Is this the guy who was racing through the airport? I want to know!

It takes practice to strike the best balance of showing and telling. A good editor will help clients figure out how to reach that balance. That might be suggesting a change from one to the other at certain points, and providing some possible wording. It might be leaving comments like “This is perfect at this juncture!” or “I’m lost here. How about some explanation of why she thinks this?”

Show AND tell, but do so judiciously. Give readers what they need to enter your story and stay there.