There are a million articles and blog posts on showing, not telling. For real. Google it. It’s great advice. It’s one of those things that a lot of new authors don’t really see until it’s pointed out to them. Something some authors who’ve been at it a while now need a reminder of. Show us, don’t tell us.
Telling is important in children’s books. Think of the board book where you read that Simon is mad! accompanied by an artistic rendering of a clearly angry Simon. This level of reading is teaching kids to associate words with what they see. Oh! That’s what mad looks like. I get it now! These drawings carry more weight than the simplistic words.
As readers get older, it flips. We see more artistic illustrations that give our mind a launching point for our imagination while the words direct what we see in our mind’s eye. The information the reader needs comes from the text more than the art. While it is still a lot of telling, the words do more to show as well. This is where kids learn to pick up on subtlety. They still need a lot of information, but they can fill in more of the blanks on their own. Simon was pretty upset at how things were turning out.
When young readers are teens, reading helps them understand their world. One of the skills they pick up during these reading years is how to read between the lines. Picking up on tension and tone. Getting cues and understanding what’s really going on. So we show them. And then when they’ve had a chance to figure it out, we confirm by telling. Simon stomped across his room and threw himself on his bed, glaring at the wall. He was not okay with this.
Now we come to adult fiction. Show, don’t tell is a mantra you’ve heard. But as you’ve seen above, telling has a place. Is there room for telling in adult fiction, though? I think so. But when, you ask. When is it okay? Let me show you.
Sometimes you just need to get to the point. Simon being mad isn’t always the point. If we all already know what a mad Simon looks and sounds like, then we can just tell the reader Simon was mad again. Shocker. Then you can get to the point of the scene.
Sometimes you need a quick review of what’s happened. Please don’t show us all over again.
Sometimes what’s going on isn’t really that important. If Simon is a side character, the fewer words spent on him, the better. Simon was pissed, but who cared?
And sometimes, just spitting it out brings things into focus for readers. If it’s a big deal, we want readers to know upfront. Simon was furious ought to get their attention and set the tone for what’s next.
Show, don’t Tell is one of those rules that you should really spend time learning. Once you’ve got a solid understanding, you can make better decisions on when to break that rule!