If you’ve been writing for any length of time you’ve probably heard the following advice; ‘Show. Don’t Tell.
It’s good advice. It’s the difference between reading –
~When he got the news, Tom was angry.~
~When he got the news, Tom walked over to the liquor cabinet and got a glass. He poured a drink, downed it, and filled another. As he raised it to his lips, he stopped, scowled, and hurled it across the room. He slammed the bottle down and stormed out.~
Now, on the surface, it’s pretty clear to see why one technique is better. Instead of just being told Tom is angry, we see the result of the anger, his actions. It’s more information, it’s more visually evocative, it’s much more personal. It allows for expansion into setting and all the senses that go with it. The advantages of show over tell are well documented, hence the phrase. But, like most rules of writing, it’s not set in stone.
The thing to remember about ‘Show. Don’t Tell.’ is that its a scale, with Show on one end, and Tell on the other. It’s virtually impossible to parse down all the way to Tell. “He mad.” is the smallest interpretation of “Tom was angry” I can come up with. Conversely, it’s tedious and impractical to go all the way into Show. I could look at my above example of Show and say that it doesn’t show enough, like this…
~When the sound waves reached his ears his brain processed the information and Tom understood the news. He engaged his leg muscles and walked with forceful steps across the shag carpet until he got to the antique liquor cabinet that had been in his family since his Dutch colonial uncle had built it back in the 1700,’s, and removed a faceted crystal tumbler with his right hand. After letting go of the glass, he reached down and removed a fifteen year old bottle of bourbon that had a browning label with an ink drawing of an eagle on it, unstopped the stained cork, and poured some liqui….~
Okay, enough of that. You see my point. It’s possible to expand upon everything and show more. Even the above could be extended upon in a near never-ending process of tedium.
It’s good advice, but it’s incomplete. The trick to ‘Show. Don’t Tell.” is more than just doing one over the other. It’s about balancing the two. Sometimes, telling is the quickest, most economic way of filling a reader in on things they need to know, but aren’t central enough to the story to immerse them in entirely. Sometimes, tell can be a fantastic way to move the story ahead to the parts of plot that actually matter. I’ve read plenty of authors who “show” throughout the entire story and the narrative follows every time the characters go to sleep and wake up, or travel somewhere, or wait while something else happens. When this occurs I always wonder if I’m about to read a bathroom break. While it may add an element of realism, it’s too much.
Not only is it acceptable to skip and tell, sometimes it can be advantageous. It allows you to tell things that hint at a more broad story, without flushing them out. Let the readers imagination fill in the gaps. They’ll do it. It also solves a slew of problems when dealing with strange and surreal settings. If you want floating mountains in the background, you don’t need to climb them. Just say they’re there. It’s okay. No need to bend over backwards to work them into the story when all they are is a bit of creative backdrop intended for just a touch of flavor.
The main thing is remembering that all tell is horrible. You can’t go all tell. You can’t even go half tell. As a rule, I find that somewhere around 80% show and 20% tell will still keep you close to the action, but not tied to minutiae and tedium.
But like I said, there are no rules set in stone.