The difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ was one of the first things I had to learn when I started writing fiction. Like many writers, I fell into the early trap of ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’.
When I showed early drafts of my work to my husband, he said it read as if I was trying to describe something I was watching on TV, instead of describing the story from inside my character’s heads.
It took a few attempts for me to get it right but three novels in, I can confidently say I know something about the difference between ‘show’ and ‘tell’. Not just that, I understand when it’s best to ‘show’ and when it’s okay to ‘tell’.
What’s the difference?
Imagine a scene between two people, Jane and Tom. You want to describe the scene from Jane’s perspective, using the third person. She is telling Tom she ate the last pie. Here are two versions of that interaction. It should be clear which example is ‘show’ and which is ‘tell’.
Jane was in the kitchen of her big house. She lived with Tom in a lovely new house near the marina on the outskirts of Eastbourne.
Jane was tidying up when Tom came home from work. Tom was a builder and he was always hungry after a long day spent labouring.
Tom said hello and came into the kitchen. He was a big man with short dark hair and big, broad shoulders.
‘I’m starving,’ Tom said. ‘Can I have the last pie?’
‘I ate it,’ Jane said.
‘But I wanted that for myself,’ he said. ‘I told you to save it for me.’
The waistband of Jane’s jeans stretched tight across her stomach. She wished she hadn’t eaten the last pie and dreaded telling Tom what she’d done. She glanced at the clock and her chest tightened. He would be home any second now.
As if on cue, she heard the scrape of his key turning in the lock, followed by the heavy tread of footsteps down the timber-floored hallway as he walked towards the kitchen.
Jane tensed as she tried to think up an excuse. Her mind kept flashing back to last night and how angry he’d been when he discovered there was only one pie left. She’d promised him she wouldn’t eat it but when she’d seen it there earlier, she hadn’t been able to stop herself.
Now, watching him as he opened the cupboard, searching for the blasted pie, all she could think of was how stupid she’d been. The aftertaste of meat and pastry clogged her throat and tongue. She wished she could stick her fingers down her throat and bring it back up but it was too late for that.
He had the pie tin in his hand. She held her breath as he lifted the lid and looked inside. He slammed the lit shut. The sound was too loud in the large, silent room, and she jumped. Tea from her cup sloshed out, soaking into the sleeve of her new sweater. She hoped it wouldn’t stain and wished, not for the first time, she hadn’t chosen white. It was such an impractical colour.
‘Where is the pie?’ Tom asked. He spoke softly but she wasn’t fooled. She knew how quickly he could turn.
‘I ate it.’
Tom put the tin down on the marble worktop. Four hundred pounds that had cost them. Jane hoped the blood wouldn’t stain. She loved that worktop.
It should be pretty obvious which example is ‘tell’ (the first one), and which is ‘show.’ I hope it’s also obvious why the second example works better. The second example is far richer. It gives a real insight into how Jane is feeling and why she feels this way. I hope it makes you want to read on and find out what Tom is going to do next.
How to do it?
The easiest way to ensure you are ‘showing’ not simply ‘telling’ is to spend some time really trying to get inside your character’s head and see the world the way they see it. This sounds easy – and it is, once you’ve mastered it – but it can take time to get right.
Imagine the scene from your character’s point of view. Imagine it from all their different senses, as well as the memories and life experiences they have carried with them to this point in time.
What do they see and hear and feel and smell? How do these different things make them feel? What memories are triggered by the sun or the rain or the smell of bacon or the pitter-patter sound of a child’s footsteps? If you can get even some of that into your writing, you’re well on your way.
Why does it matter?
It matters because good writing matters. If you don’t understand the difference, if you ‘tell’ your story instead of ‘showing’ it, you are not writing the best story you can write. And that isn’t fair on you or your readers.
Of course, you also need to know when it’s okay to ‘tell’. For many of us, our first experience of fiction was being read stories that began ‘Once upon a time..’ which is clearly telling rather than showing.
It’s still a fine way to start a story but there are many other fine ways as well. Your job, as a writer, is to understand which approach works best for the story you’re trying to tell.
(c) Sheila Bulger
About All Things Nice
Charlotte Gleeson is living the life she always dreamed of, but it’s nothing like she imagined. Her daughter hates her, her husband is having an affair, her drinking is out of control. And now she’s the prime suspect in a murder investigation …
For DI Ellen Kelly, this is her first big investigation in eight months – since she let a serial killer get away. There’s an awful lot riding on a good result, which means keeping up the pressure on Charlotte Gleeson and her messed-up family.
As Ellen investigates, it becomes clear the Gleesons are harbouring some dangerous secrets. The more she digs, the more she uncovers … and the closer she comes to a deadly confrontation.
All Things Nice is the third in the Ellen Kelly series of crime novels, and is in shops now, or pick up your copy online here!