Showing versus telling is a popular topic, though some may call it redundant, given it’s emphasized so often. Yet this is the aspect [or art] of writing that is so essential to keeping readers interested. So, let’s reiterate for the record one more time: show and don’t tell. Engage readers’ senses through physical descriptions and actions.
Many writers are guilty of telling and not showing, particularly when first starting out. It’s easy, comfortable maybe, to jot down / key in actions as they happen. Da-da-da-da-da. Translation: s-t-a-t-i-c.
A: John went to the lake to find Jake. When he got there, he looked around. The sky was getting cloudy and dark. He eyed the surroundings again. There was no sign of life. He sighed and walked to the small beach but couldn’t see anyone. Where was Jake?
B: Anxious, John hastened to the lake to search for his youngest brother, Jake. He’d not returned to the cottage after promising to return mid-afternoon. It wasn’t like him not to call if he’d planned to be late. Given Jake’s love of the water, however, maybe he’d come here for a long, leisurely swim. John rushed onto the pier and quickly scanned the rippled water. There was no swimmer, no boat, nothing. He surveyed the still surroundings; the park, beach, and pier showed no signs of life, but that was to be expected, given it was early April. He zipped up his hoodie. A chilly breeze was blowing in. The sky was growing increasingly cloudy and gray; it promised rain, perhaps even a storm. John swore softly, closed his eyes, and drew a long calming breath. Where was Jake? Why hadn’t he phoned?
“A” simply tells us what John is doing. We may understand that he’s anxious, given the sigh. There’s very little description of the vicinity. Up and above that, there’s no emotion or action. “B” demonstrates John’s anxiety through the rushing and scanning, and the attempt to calm down. We know the time of year and can better visualize the vicinity.
Telling does have its place and merit. For short passages, a little telling is fine. Too much of it, on the other hand, can prompt yawn-inducing boredom. Showing will help paint a [vivid] picture. When you show, you use physical details and actions and, consequently, yes, engage those senses. You draw readers into the story . . . enable them to imagine the setting/location . . . and become involved in what’s transpiring.
Showing enables you to [more thoroughly] develop your characters. Instead of describing your protagonist with a few adjectives, you can detail a scene to render a more complete picture. John in “A” is looking for his brother but we don’t really know why. Maybe he cares, maybe he doesn’t, and if he does, maybe it’s because his brother owes him $50 or was supposed to drive him somewhere. In “B”, we learn it’s not like his brother not to call when something comes up. John takes a calming breath. We sense John cares and is worried.
You can reveal character traits through dialogue as well. Something like this might work . . .
“Where’re you going?” Cousin Sarah scanned John’s drawn face.
“The lake. Maybe Jake’s gone there,” he responded with a furrowed brow, hastening to the rear door.
“You worry too much,” she said with a quick smile.
“He’s my brother,” he said ruefully. “If I don’t watch out for him, who will?”
“Hurry back. It looks like rain’s not far off.”
John nodded grimly and raced from the modest cottage he was sharing the small getaway with her, Jake, and Uncle Randolph. They’d arrived two days ago to enjoy a week of fishing, campfires, and relaxation. Hopefully, all was okay and come six o’clock, the three of them would be seated at the table, eating Sarah’s delicious fish stew with rice.
Dialogue can also flesh out your characters. The way they speak / respond can tell us something about them.
♦ “Yeah, okay, whatever,” Harold said in his usual brusque manner, not caring one way or the other. ♦ “Ye-es, s-sure, I’d like that,” Barney replied, wishing yet again his stutter wasn’t so pronounced. ♦ “F that, he’s a loser,” he muttered with a scowl, then proceeded to curse under his breath as he often did when annoyed. ♦ “Ja, das . . . das is what he . . . reported,” Helmut nodded, struggling to find the right English words.
Do provide details/descriptions, and action, when you show but remember: moderation in everything. And to keep it interesting [readable] combine long and short sentences and utilize those details as appropriate.
A: Seema walked along the veined marble floor, through the long and cold corridor, to reach the chandelier-heavy salon, where the guests congregated, seated on fancy upholstered armchairs and sofas, which were strategically placed along the painting-dense room.
B: Seema strolled along the lengthy marble-rich floor of the chilly corridor. Stepping into a bright, chandelier-heavy salon, she surveyed the guests seated on handsome upholstered armchairs and sofas. Lovely landscapes lined the high ivory walls and glossy sculptures stood in corners. She liked that the room whispered of great wealth and didn’t scream it.
Besides “A” being a run-on sentence (if anyone still cares), it has description overkill. Too much is crammed into one long sentence. “B” is a little easier on the eyes and, hence, to read.
Think of stories that had you excited, anxious, happy—ones that drove you down the road of adventure at full speed, or prompted a tear of happiness or sorrow. That’s the goal: to involve readers, to make them never want to put your book down. Sure, showing and not telling takes time to master. But, as often said, practice makes perfect. If there were no challenges, how s-t-a-t-i-c life would be . . . rather like a story that tells, but doesn’t show. 😊