A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words, but remember you’ve only got about a hundred pictures’ worth to work with in a novel, and the equivalent to fewer than eight pictures in a short story. Don’t waste them by trying to show every frakkin’ thing, or you’ll use up your word count before you reach the end of the story you want to tell.
Sometimes, it’s better by far to tell rather than show.
You, the kid in the back who just screamed, “Heresy!” and threw a copy of The Elements of Style in my general direction: You can leave now. Come back when you learn to listen and to participate politely in polite discussion. Are the rest of you settled in? Yes? Okay, then…
My fellow blogger Quintessential Editor (Am I the only person who thinks of a certain lengthy Robert Frost poem every time the word quintessential is mentioned? Yes? Oh, well… Here’s a warp-quote anyway: “I know the Quintessence of many things./I know the Quintessence of plot, I know/the Quintessence of setting, and I know/The Quintessence of pens, writers and readers.” If you want to read the original, for-real version, Google “How Hard It Is to Keep from Being King When It’s in You and in the Situation.” Yes, that’s the full title of the poem. Read it; it’s funny.) has a post about when it works better to show in fiction, and when it works better to tell, and why the choice is not an either/or thing. Rather, he says, show vs. tell is a scale… Read “Show vs. Tell & Intensity Scales” to find out what that means and how to apply it to your own writing.
Done with your reading assignment? Good. Now we can move on to the follow-up bit…
“But, Weaver,” says someone else, because of course the first kid had friends, “‘Show, don’t tell’ is, like, a Rule of Writing ™ and stuff! Writing that the protagonist drove a blue car is telling, which is bad writing; a good writer, a Real Writer ™, would show that the protagonist drove a blue car.”
First of all, kudos for figuring out voice inflection to indicate the trademark symbol — most people never develop that skill. Second, you’re excused from class if you’re in the middle of molting or whatever. Seriously, I’m not gonna make a parrot come to class when he or she is obviously not feeling well and thus not thinking clearly. Third, don’t bring crackers to class unless you brought enough to share with everyone.
Fourth — and this is where it gets important — some people take “Show, don’t tell” way too far. They’ll insist that the following sentence, for example, is telling: Jacob edged toward the now-sealed door, his heart thumping harder, his gun raised in a shaking hand. (I blame this sentence on a blog comment that reminded me of an all-too-common punctuation error made when quoting a famous poem by W. B. Yeats. It’s that kind of day.) How is that sentence telling rather than showing what the character feels? How should the writer show it, if this isn’t showing? Words, not literal pictures, are a writer’s tools, so yes, you can argue that all sentences are telling rather than showing, but if that’s how you define things, how the hell is any writer following the extreme interpretation of “Show, don’t tell”?
Anyone…? Anyone…? Bueller…?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Another fun fact about “Show, don’t tell” (aside from the fact that it needs a comma, I mean): Use of to be verbs (is, was, are, am, etc.) DOES NOT make a sentence telling instead of showing. (Not all uses of to be verbs are passive anyway. Read “It is raining… by zombies?” for an explanation of passive voice and an easy way to determine if you’re using it.) If you’ve been going around informing your fellow writers (or readers) that a writer who writes a sentence such as Sarah was singing downstairs when I got home is a Bad Writer because that’s a passive-voice sentence, you’re doing it wrong. You’re a zombie parrot, and not in a cool Monty Python way, either.
Don’t be a zombie parrot.
Remember that words aren’t pictures, no matter what they’re worth, and learn to make the best use of your chosen tools instead of trying to make them function as something else.