Every writer, at some point, has heard the phrase, "There is too much telling." Perhaps the critique came from a well-meaning critique partner, or even that rare agent who offered a personalized rejection. Unfortunately, that advice has become so common that it can be about as useless as the also-ubiquitous, "Passive voice is bad!" mantra.
So what exactly does it mean to show, not tell? And when is telling better than showing? Here are some tools I try to keep in mind when editing. To digress a moment, I don't recommend going through this process while you are churning out your first draft. It's called a crappy first draft for a reason.
When you see a long expanse of text with no dialogue, and no "short action" paragraphs to break up the action (like, "the cell door slammed shut"), ask yourself if the passage is lacking some description of a person's body language as well as other sensory elements, such as touch or smell that could convey the same information, or whether the same scene could be conveyed better with dialogue rather than description. If the passage if merely a character's backstory, does it read like an information dump or can you weave in some of the back story in later chapters if it doesn't have to be established up front?
By way of example, here is some "telling."
"Mary was very angry. Her husband was late for dinner again and despite several text messages and voice mails, he hadn't bothered to tell her if he was on his way home or not. To make matters worse, her teenage son had wolfed down a dinner she had carefully prepared from scratch. He had eaten quickly while standing up and then immediately dashed out, not even bothering to tell her where he was going. Mary wondered if she should just give up. She began googling divorce attorneys."
Here is how the same situation could be more "showy."
No new messages.
"Inconsiderate jerk," Mary muttered. She punched Joe's cell number with her thumb as she ladled the congealed remains of her signature lasagna into a plastic containers with the other hand. The remnants of fresh basil, oregano and garlic wafted through the air.
Straight to voice mail. Mary clicked End Call. She tossed her phone on the counter. The dog she hadn't wanted looked up at her hopefully with a leash in his mouth.
"Go walk yourself. I'm done being everyone's maid," she told him. "Jake, where are you going?
Her son barely looked up from his phone. He opened the side door. "Out."
"But you barely touched your din-"
The door slammed shut in his wake. Mary scraped the remaining food into the sink and put it down the disposal. She opened up her laptop, poured herself a glass of wine she'd been saving for a special occasion, and typed. A few minutes later, she clicked on Schedule a Free Consultation with one our Board Certified Divorce Attorneys.
In the first example, the writer is simply telling the reader what the reader needs to know about Mary. She feels unappreciated, put upon, and has simply had enough. The second example shows the reader things Mary does and says, and how she reacts to what other people do through action and dialogue. We don't need to be told how she feels because we can see it.
This is not to suggest that "telling" is always bad. Sometimes, telling is better than showing. Consider this "all tell" passage from Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald:
"T. Harlan Bowie had to be prybarred and torch-cut out of his squashed Buick, and there was so much blood the rescue people were in a big hurry. As it turned out, they would have done a lot better taking it slow and easy rather than turning him and twisting him and working him in muscular style out of the metal carapace. Nobody could prove anything afterward. The lacerations were superficial. But there was a fracture of the spine, and between the second and third lumbar vertebrae the unprotected cord had been pinched, ground, bruised, torn and all but severed. Nobody could ever say whether the accident had done it, or the rescue efforts."
You can't convince me that there is a better way to convey this information about poor Mr. Bowie than to just say it. There is no need to draw it out with "showing" techniques because the reader only needs to know Mr. Bowie's predicament in order to set the stage for actual plot, which doesn't really involve how he became physically disabled. Stephen King similarly introduces us to retired Detective Hodges in Mr. Mercedes by just telling us in straightforward, unembellished fashion, about how he spends his days post retirement watching television and gaining weight.
So when to show and when to tell? That is often in the eye of the beholder. But say that Mary in our first example is a fleeting character in a slasher novel who gets killed off rather quickly at the beginning. Maybe a little "tell" works better because we don't really need to know the details of her lasagna and her kid. But if Mary is the main character in a chick lit novel, then yes, we need to be able to identify with the every day experiences of feeling overwhelmed and under taken for granted. In that case, the second example works better.
In your own writing, if you notice a lot of first-version Mary writing that goes on for pages and pages, this should be a red flag to ask yourself a few questions. Can I write this scene referencing facial expressions, glances, smells, or by use of dialogue? Instead of saying "Lady Macbeth was convinced blood was everywhere and on her hands and she couldn't get clean," show a character scrubbing an already immaculate surface until her knuckles bleed while someone pleads with her to stop.
The next step in editing is to identify the filler words we all use when we try to "show, don't tell." My writing's worst offenders are eye rolling and shrugging. But that topic has to wait until next month.
Happy show and tell until then.