Among a number of other things, fiction writers are urged to “show, don’t tell.” Why? Because readers relate to the world around them with their five senses, and if you want them to experience the world of your characters, you’ve got to place them in that world – viscerally. Showing can come in different forms. It can be imagery that allows us to see, touch, or taste, or it can be scenic treatment that allows us to experience character conflicts firsthand.
But must you show everything? Some telling is needed, isn’t it?
Second, how do you go about showing – and at what point in your writing process do you manage this?
Third, what’s too little? What’s too much?
To answer these questions, we’ve turned to several seasoned fiction writers of both short fiction and novels.
Showing versus telling
Is show, don’t tell, a writerly command you must, if you’re going to be successful as a writer, rigorously obey?
According to Gary Fincke, Flannery O’Connor Award winner and author of over 30 works of fiction, “‘Show, don’t tell’ isn’t a rule, and there are exceptions, but nearly every fiction writer benefits by following that advice.” Although Fincke clarifies he doesn’t speak for all readers, he says he’d rather find out things on his own. “I no more want to be ‘told’ by a writer than to be ‘told’ by authority figures and institutional representatives. The pleasure of reading is in the discovery.”
Historical novelist Sophie Perinot says characters are most likely to come alive when the writer makes them vivid for the reader. Telling is “more of a ‘take-my-word-for-it’” approach on the author’s part. Readers want to see characters in action, not be told about their characteristics. She says description alone won’t cut it: “Many authors believe describing what a character looks like is the most important factor in making them come to life. I think it is the least important.” Instead, through their various actions and behaviors, she tries to capture what they’re like “on the inside,” to make them multidimensional, or “fully human.”
In her recent collaborative novel, Ribbons of Scarlet, Perinot found this to be a challenge with protagonist Princess Elisabeth, the sister of the “doomed” King Louis XVI. “In a book filled with Revolutionarily-minded women, it would have been easy to let Elisabeth become a cardboard representation of a ‘villainous monarchy.’ But Elisabeth was a complicated woman – known for her charity and piety, not for any sort of stereotypical royal self-centered over-indulgence.” Perinot kept this in mind when the princess saw the first-ever execution by guillotine, taking care to filter this experience “through her personality as well as through her eyes.” For Perinot, no amount of description could bring her character alive as much as experiencing this grisly scene does.
But delineation of setting, including place and time, is crucial to historical novels. How can an author “show” readers the time period without describing it?
In researching The Prettiest Star, which takes place in 1986, Carter Sickels depended on a combination of memory and research to reveal as many specific details of the period as possible, including “popular songs, TV shows, movies, slang, clothes, and objects.” He didn’t want to present “a catalog of nostalgia,” so he was careful to select the relevant details, those “that created texture and seemed authentic and true to the characters.” His goal was to immerse his readers in the world of his novel seamlessly so that the research didn’t call attention to itself.
Cultural context can also be important. Sahar Mustafah is the author of The Beauty of Your Face, included in the 100 Notable Books of 2020 by the New York Times Book Review. “As a writer of color, I’m interested in cultural world-building that will resonate authentically with my immediate community and with a larger, unfamiliar audience,” she says. In each of her stories, she works to make sure her descriptions don’t “come off as a generic lesson on ethnicity or religion.” She also avoids “over-contextualizing,” which can “disrupt the action or dilute the narrative voice.” For this reason, she says, “I don’t italicize Arabic words and phrases to avoid othering or exoticizing my already marginalized characters.”
If you want to grab your readers, be specific and concrete – and carefully select the right details. If you need to do world-building, meet the needs of your particular genre, or form, as well as your readership for this work. But what about telling? How prescriptive is this watchword show, don’t tell really meant to be?
Not every writer sees the issue of showing/telling as one technique versus the other. “Personally,” says Hilary Leichter, author of Temporary, “I think the show vs. tell dichotomy is a false barometer.” It’s not that she doesn’t value specific and concrete details: “I love incredibly lush descriptive passages and moments where the reader can suss out meaning by way of behavior or indirect detail.” But she’s also “a huge fan of ‘telling,’ of purposely expository prose, of a voice that eschews detail as a defense, as a way of holding the reader at arm’s length.” She feels showing/telling is more a matter of access: “How much access does the writer give the reader, and by what means?”
Whitney Scharer, author of The Age of Light, also questions this expression “show, don’t tell.” She states, “I heard it so many times while in college and graduate school that I became overly focused on it and ended up writing stories without enough interiority, because every time I sat down to write about what my characters thought, I felt like I was ‘telling’ too much.” In writing The Age of Light, she had to work against this famous catchphrase: “I had to overcome my aversion to what I thought of as ‘telling’ in order to get inside my main character’s head and explore her emotional journey. I’ve learned that the maxim shouldn’t be ‘show, don’t tell,’ but ‘show and tell.’”