God. These three words. Honestly, they are one of the biggest net of knots in which a writer can become tangled. Should I show? Should I tell? Am I telling too much? How can I show this bit? It is an art and something that only comes with practice and feedback, unless you are some sort of preternaturally talented individual who can sit down and write bestsellers without even thinking about it.
I have been writing for many years, but the majority of my work (and certainly all that has been published to date) has been articles for magazines and various clients. And that, my friends, is quite a different sort of writing than that which makes up a novel. It’s all telling. I mean, when I interviewed people I included quotes and descriptions of my surroundings, but I was still telling my audience about what they needed to know. Health and Beauty, Home and Garden, the beauty of the changing seasons, how to plan a wedding – it’s all passing on information. Even this blog is just me telling you stuff.
But story telling is different. You have to weave the picture for your reader, through dialogue and action and words and backstory and description. You notice I use the word ‘weave’ – in fact, I have used it as an analogy for writing several times in this blog. It’s because to me, that’s what storytelling feels like. As though I hold a handful of threads, whether different characters or worlds or ideas and it’s up to me to work out how they go together to create the fabric of a story. So there are times where I have to let dialogue inform the reader, and others where there is nothing else I can do but describe the surroundings and events. So I move between show and tell, learning as I go to work the threads in ever more complex patterns and, as I do, I see them start to move ahead of me, showing me (or telling me?) the way forward, a glimpse of the finished pattern.
I still remember the first time someone said it to me. Show, don’t tell. It was one of my first beta readers and, let me tell you, it was a huge eye opener. Such a wonderful, helpful thing to say to someone like me, who had an idea but not much idea at that point of how to convey it. I am eternally grateful to him.
Writing. Sometimes I wonder why I put myself through it. But it is because I have stories I need to write down, characters running around in my head demanding their stories be told. So I press on, weaving show with tell. And this is what I believe, based on experience and feedback to date. You can’t show all the time, or you risk leaving the reader anchorless, having to infer their surroundings from what the characters are saying and frankly, how often is someone going to say, ‘I shall sit over here, on this sofa upholstered in a tasteful paisley next to a nice end table.’ You just wouldn’t. No one would. So if someone, whether friend or agent or whoever, says to you ‘Show, don’t tell,’ consider their point in the context of your story. Because sometimes you have to just tell. And it’s OK, really it is.