TLDR: Telling can be great for first drafts and speeding up the pace. Showing is better for discovery writing and engaging your readers.
Every aspiring writer has heard the advice, “show, don’t tell,” but successful authors tell all the time. What gives?
Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever. – The Hard Way by Lee Child
The above sentence shows an example of both showing and telling. (EDIT: On further consideration, the sentence is all telling, just detailed telling. Showing would be more like: Reacher thanked the cashier and took the plastic cup. He walked past the sugar and milk to sit by the window. The first jolt kicked the haze out of his head. The black espresso burned his tongue.) The showing informs the reader not only that Jack Reacher drinks espresso, but we know how he takes his espresso, which leads us to infer things about what sort of person he is. This is engaging mental exercise, looking over someone’s shoulder, making judgments about them. The telling part “he saw a man’s life change forever” hides information, providing a spark of curiosity that drives us to read onward.
I will begin this post with a defense of telling, followed by an important, atypical reason to show.
In Defense of Telling
Telling is when you, the author, directly tell the reader what to think.
Telling: He was angry.
Showing: He clenched his fists, eyes narrow, jaw rigid.
The telling example gets across basic information quickly, which is sufficient if it doesn’t matter, for instance, how the character expresses anger. Telling is useful when the author wants to quicken the pace and move forward to something new. That’s true in a final draft as much as in an early draft.
The usefulness of telling in early drafts, especially first drafts, is highly overlooked. When writing a first draft, often the author wants to get all their thoughts on paper quickly so they can see the whole picture. Telling is your go-to for speed.
I like to think of it this way: telling is for writing, showing is for revising.
A lot of new authors get told to “show, don’t tell” and this leads to slower progress, less practice, or worse, writer’s block. Telling can be a great way to lay down the bones of the story. The flesh can grow in later.
Now that I’ve defended telling and emphasized its usefulness to inexperienced writers and any writer constructing an early draft, here is a reason to show, especially in early drafts: discovery writing.
If you are writing a new story and you’re not sure what your character eats, what they wears, how they speak, how they walk. If you’re not sure about the setting and what your character notices about the setting, focusing on showing-type details is a great way to find out. Asking yourself about the details of the scene and writing down whatever comes to mind is a way of showing yourself what’s going on. You can make inferences and judgments about your own character and discover who they are.
This method may lead to contradictions if your character acts one way in one scene, but acts completely differently in another, but that sort of thing can be edited out later on. Focusing on showing in early drafts can also lead to surprising insights as you let ideas flow out. A good writing exercise for showing is to answer the following questions in each scene:
What do you see?
What do you smell?
What do you hear?
What do you taste?
What do you feel physically?
What do you feel emotionally?
How do you act?
Lastly, it’s perfectly acceptable to both tell and show in early drafts. I find that I regularly do this. I have a thought that I want to put down on paper so I tell it directly, perhaps I’m afraid of losing the thought, then I also show. This is normal on early drafts and is very easy to fix upon revision because usually all you need to do is delete the telling part. For example:
He approached the spooky-looking building. The windows were all cracked or missing, jagged glass guarding pitch-black holes. Moonlight glinted off broken glass in the parking lot. He stepped carefully, slowly, to avoid making any sound. Barely breathing, he approached the heavy, wooden doors.
Notice how the first sentence can be cut without losing anything.
In conclusion, “show, don’t tell,” like most pithy advice, misses a lot of nuance and can be harmful if misapplied.