Show, don't tell is advice to write in a way that allows the reader to experience the story through a character's actions, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings (showing) rather than through the narrator's exposition and description (telling).
The advice is not always true.
Related Articles: Scene by Scene
The goal of showing is to allow readers to experience the author's ideas by interpreting significant events, instead of being told information by the narrator or a character.
Often, when an author "tells", the story is essentially on pause—unless a character is speaking or thinking in a way that forwards the plot. This can frustrate a reader eager for the story to move on.
Ways of Telling
- All-knowing Narrator — Place the information between scenes as the all-seeing, all-knowing (but impersonal and invisible) narrator.
- Through Dialogue — Another means of delivering information is through a character, either as dialogue or being portrayed through the character's thoughts.
- Clippings — Jessica Page Morrell has observed that various devices, such as trial transcriptions, newspaper clippings, letters, and diaries may be used to convey information to the reader.
This is where a concentrated amount of background material is given all at once in the story, often in the form of a conversation between two characters, both of whom should already know the material under discussion. These are sometimes referred to as "idiot lectures". They often begin with "As you know..."
"Show, don't tell" should not be applied to all incidents in a story. According to James Scott Bell, "Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene.
Telling can be used to speed through less important parts of a scene.
For example, if showing would require a new character to be introduced who will never return later, then it might not be worth writing all of the action. Showing this will also take up more physical space on the page.
Passage of Time
"Telling" can be used to cover a greater span of time with minimal words.
Incluing is a technique of world building, in which the reader is gradually exposed to background information about the world in which a story is set. The idea is to clue the readers into the world the author is building, without them being aware of it.
Both incluing and infodumping are forms of exposition and are frequently used in science fiction and fantasy, genres where the author has the task to make the reader believe in a world that does not exist.
One famous example of incluing is the door dilated, a phrase created by Robert A. Heinlein. The short mention of a door opening like an eye establishes familiarity with it, and does not call attention to itself.
The word incluing is attributed to fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton. She defined it as "the process of scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information."
Orson Scott Card believes that motivation is unshowable.
And you did this because... of those morons who told you "show don't tell"? Because motivation is unshowable. It must be told. (In fact, most things must be told.) The advice "show don't tell" is applicable in only a few situations—most times, most things, you tell-don't-show. I get so impatient with this idiotic advice that has been plaguing writers for generations.
When you are using a POV character, the single most important thing that you must tell the reader is the full purpose of what the character is doing, as soon as the character knows it himself. If you do not, you are cheating, and the audience gets less and less patient with you, until they lose interest because you are not telling them the most important information that people come to stories—especially fiction—to receive!