Show, don't tell is the principle of creating scenes. It originates with Henry James who, in the preface to the New York edition of Daisy Miller, reports leaving a pencil-mark in the margins of his notes, reminding himself to 'Dramatize, dramatise!'. Beginner writers often use exposition to 'tell' their stories instead of letting the story unfold through action and dialogue. The idea of writing in scenes, without authorial comment, is that the reader has the illusion of being a vicarious participant in the events of the story. As a result, the reader can come to his or her own interpretation without interference from the author.
Examples of show, don't tell
When applying show, don't tell, the writer does more than just tell the reader something about a character; he unveils the character by what that character says and does. Showing can be done by:
- writing scenes
- describing the actions of the characters
- revealing character through dialogue
- using the five senses when possible
- Instead of telling:
- Mrs. Parker was nosy. She gossiped about her neighbors.
the writer could show:
Turning the blinds ever so slightly, Mrs. Parker could just peek through the window and see the Ford Explorer parked in the driveway. She squinted to get a better view of the tall, muscular man getting out of the vehicle and walking up to Mrs. Jones' front door. He rang the doorbell. When Mrs. Jones opened the door and welcomed the stranger into her home with a hug, Mrs. Parker gasped and ran to her phone.
"Charlotte, you are not going to believe what I just saw!" Mrs. Parker peeked out the window again to see if the man was still inside.
"Five years ago, John Meadows married Linda Carrington. Although both had grown up in Brooklyn and didn't want to leave, John had accepted a job in Montana and moved his young family west. He found he liked the mountains and open sky, but Linda was frustrated and unhappy. This all became clear the night they attended a party at their neighbors' house."
"I told you I didn't want to go to this," Linda said as she stood beside John on their neighbors' steps. "It's just going to be as lame as every other party we've been to since we got here."
"You used to love parties," John said, avoiding eye contact.
"Yeah, well, that was back in Brooklyn. But Montana isn't Brooklyn."
"No." He looked at the mountains, colored flame by the setting sun, the sky he had come to love. Then he looked at Linda, glowering even before they went inside. In five years of marriage, she had changed so much. They both had.
He pressed the doorbell."
Showing dramatizes a scene in a story to help the reader forget he is reading, to help the reader get to know the characters, to make the writing more interesting. "It is the difference between actors acting out an event, and the lone playwright standing on a bare stage recounting the event to the audience."
When to tell
"Show, don't tell," like all rules, has exceptions. According to James Scott Bell: "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won't, and your readers will get exhausted."
Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time. A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling. Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress. For example, if George is a character in a story, he could do the following things:
- Have an argument with his boss
- Drive to his girlfriend's house
- Have an argument with his girlfriend
The writer could show the arguments with George’s boss and girlfriend, but tell the reader George drove over to his girlfriend's house without excess narrative. As long as nothing important to the story happens on that drive, then the writer need only tell the reader.
The writer may also want to use telling to show the reader that the narrator of the story (see point-of-view) is not reliable. The narrator may tell that George is a great guy, but then later show what a jerk he is through showing. The reader can then decide, "Oh, the narrator of this story doesn't see George correctly."