Writers hear the phrase “Show, don’t tell” bandied about in the fiction world an awful lot, but what does it actually mean when editors comment that an author is simply telling rather than showing, and why is it made out to be such a big deal?

While authors have their own individual style, common story elements — from characters’ personalities to background about a fictional society — can be described in a number of ways. At times, it’s beneficial or even necessary for a writer to convey these details through explicit statements. But a story that consists solely of a laundry list of facts about a character or situation can get real boring real fast.

By describing characters’ conversations, facial expressions, actions and reactions, just to name a few, an author can convey the same information as a descriptive list would, but with more engaging prose.

Take the following examples:

  • “The cocky man was a smuggler, who didn’t care much about other people’s problems. He wasn’t pleased with the princess’s request.”
  • “The blaster dangled from his belt as he melted into the captain’s chair, legs sprawled in front of him. ‘Look,’ he snarled, ‘I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.’”

Yes, Han Solo is certainly cocky and doesn’t care for plans that don’t benefit him, but why just tell you that when I can show you through his actions, words, and stance? After reading the second example, you probably have a much better mental picture of Han and who he is as a character, not to mention aren’t bored out of your skull at the first’s relatively flat prose.

If you’re having trouble with the showing aspect of this common critique, practice describing different characters doing the same, mundane task (characters are probably the easiest example of showing vs. telling, hence my reliance on them in this post). How would Han Solo cook breakfast, versus Captain America, versus Cath from Fangirl? Each have different personalities, and aren’t going to move and behave in the same way. An angry Captain America will act differently than one running laps with Sam Wilson. Keep those traits in mind as you write descriptively.

There are times when, as an author, you need to cover more ground (and usually complicated ground, for that matter) and telling may better serve your purpose. Showing does take more time, but creates a much more vivid image than telling does. Just like with anything — really, anything ever, literary-wise or not — balance is key. I’ve read my fair share of stories that rely so heavily on description that the story turns into an adjectival mad-lib filled with clunky and empty prose. I’ve also read my share of stories that have no imagery whatsoever and use a character/narrator as a crutch to tell the reader about ALL THE THINGS!

As with everything, there is a time and a place for showing, as well as for telling.

What books drive you mad with too much telling or even too much showing?