“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
This quote by Chekhov may be familiar to some of you. It encapsulates perfectly one of the rules of good fiction writing: Show, don’t tell.
Consider the following:
- The man was very nervous. He tried not to cry. He really didn’t want to go to the meeting.
- The man shifted from one foot to the other, unable to keep still. His stomach was turning somersaults and he felt that telltale prickle behind his eyelids. He blinked furiously.
Which is more powerful? Which makes you want to read on? Which tells us something about this character; something that goes beyond simply what he looks like, or what he does for a job? And which is more intriguing, leaving us guessing a little bit about what exactly is happening?
In 2., the “showing” example, rather than merely saying that this man is nervous, I’ve put him in a situation where his experience of those nerves takes centre stage. The reader can deduce the same information they’d get from the “telling” example, but in a much more compelling way. The description contributes to story development, but also leaves certain things up to the reader’s interpretation, which is much more interesting than making everything explicit.
The bottom line: telling might be quicker, and it’s certainly necessary to have some telling in every story, but showing should almost always be your primary strategy.