Hands up if a critic has told you ‘show don’t tell’ (SDT). Keep that hand up if you found it rather unhelpful at the time or if that critic didn’t elaborate much. Yes, it’s a pesky phrase. Showing rather than telling can be a pretty powerful tool, and here's what it really means:
Showing brings your words to life, creates imagery, and lets the reader know exactly what’s going on. It doesn’t tell you facts explicitly, but builds an idea in your head so that usually you understand it in far more detail than you would have. Good writing makes you realise a fact without being told it straight.
As a writer it forces you to explore your imagination further really think about your story and your characters. It adds depth.
*But showing is not always better than telling.*
Telling adds pace. It moves the story along and sums up ideas that may be unclear if let to just showing. It doesn’t try to add detail to a relatively boring fact. It lets you know what piece of information is important and avoids using dialogue in an awkward manner.
It’s a useful tool for when the imagery isn’t particularly important. A story that builds up detail into every sentence can be tedious to picture and can feel irrelevant sometimes.
Use telling wisely. Too much of it and your story will fall flat. The reader might not be able to picture your scene. They might fill in the blanks with their imagination which could later clash with yours.
A good story has a balance between the two. SDT is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot and it should be, but it often happens for the wrong reasons. In my next few articles I will delve a little deeper, explaining how and when to use it, and how to tweak your story if you keep getting SDTs.