I remember once watching an impressionist on television, who apparently had so little confidence in his ability to project an accurate representation of his subjects, he felt obliged to tell his audience whom he was 'doing'. It went a bit like this:
Oh, hello. Basil Fawlty here…
I'm sure you'd agree that such a practice defeats the object of mimicry, and could even be construed as laziness. Instead of showing us which character he was meant to be, and in the case of the Torquay hotel proprietor, the impressionist had a rich seam in which to work, he told us. It was a poor effort.
Breathe life into the work
So it is in writing. Simply telling bald facts can leave the narrative flat and uninteresting, with an undertone of laziness. It is far better to engage readers via descriptive images that breathe life into the work. To demonstrate, here are some basic examples where show trumps tell.
Tell: He was angry.
Show: He banged his fist on the table.
Tell: It was raining.
Show: Viewed from an upstairs window, the street below was a moving mosaic of raised umbrellas.
Tell: She died.
Show: He held her hand and watched the blanket rise and fall with the gentle heaving of her chest. Then, it went down but failed to rise again.
There is a far richer tapestry on display in the show examples.
In his book A Kestrel for a Knave, which was made into the 1970 film, Kes, Barry Hines doesn't tell that the book's protagonist, schoolboy Billy Casper, comes from an impoverished home, he shows, and he does so from the opening line.
There were no curtains up. The window was a hard-edged block the color of the night sky. Inside the bedroom, the darkness was of a gritty texture. The wardrobe and bed were blurred shapes in the darkness. Silence.
That there are no curtains up at the bedroom window indicates either poverty or a lax domestic routine. The reader's suspicions lean towards the former reason, on learning a few lines later that Billy shares a bed with his older brother, Jud. It sets the tone of the book perfectly.
A much fuller picture
Sticking with the theme of impoverishment, this next example comes from the opening page of George Orwell's 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Again, the protagonist, in this case, twenty-nine-year-old Gordon Comstock, is a stranger to affluence. Here's how Orwell shows, rather than tells readers of Gordon's hardship.
His coat was out at the elbow in the right sleeve and its middle button was missing; his ready-made flannel trousers were stained and shapeless. Even from above, you could see that his shoes needed resoling.
Rather than simply stating that Gordon was hard-up, perhaps via one of the many synonyms for that phrase that he could have used, like being down on his luck, or falling on hard times, Orwell instead shows us, quite graphically, that all is not well in the Comstock financial department. In so doing, he paints a much fuller picture.
So much for examples from existing works, but what about writing our own?
Here's something I've put together to demonstrate that showing, rather than telling, can actually be fun. In this piece, I shall first tell, then show that it has been snowing.
Eric answered the door. A thick layer of snow lay in the garden. The delivery driver stood on the path, holding a pizza in a box.
And now, I show.
Eric answered the door. The delivery driver stood on the path, holding a pizza in a box. Jinx, Eric's tortoiseshell kitten, seized the opportunity to sample freedom by darting between his master's feet, and into the garden.
The fledgling feline was so startled by his new and unusual surroundings, he did what most cats would do in that situation; he leapt into the air. On landing, in several inches of freshly fallen snow, Jinx contemplated for a moment, before hurriedly returning to the warmth of the house.
Rather than delivering details of the weather conditions in the matter-of-fact manner of the first example, I relayed that information via a comical aside.
Go out on a limb
And therein lies the beauty of the whole show-don't-tell concept. It allows the writer to explore; to go out on a limb, perhaps comically, as with the aforementioned kitten, or grimly as in the line about death. It allows us to be bold about imagery, like Barry Hines's curtain-less window, or the mosaic of umbrellas.
Converting bare facts into detailed descriptions gives the reader a better understanding of the image or message the writer wants to relay. So, if you're writing, don't just say a woman was cold, or that a teacher was strict, dig deeper, flesh out bald facts with rich detail, and show.
(Originally published in Medium)