We often hear authors ask why they should ‘show’ not ‘tell’, when so much of the published material they read is telling. I’m in the process of reading Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, and I can’t help but notice just how much he ‘tells’. There’s little dialogue and the reader isn’t really given the opportunity to interpret any given situation as it’s pretty much all told to them. Yet, I am utterly hooked.
This does go to show that there’s a certain level of literary talent, which can get away with such a thing. You’ll find that most literary fiction is ‘telling’, but it takes an extremely skilled, not to mention, experienced, writer to manage to hook a reader as they’re told a sequence of events. When the writing’s not been developed to that point yet, the importance of ‘showing’ is essential to whether a story will be gripping enough.
So, when is it important to ‘show’ and when to ‘tell’?
To ‘show’ and dramatise everything can slow the pace of a story, and can quite easily end up boring a reader. The main thing is to understand the crucial moments in your story. What are the key turning points in the plot? When are there dramatic emotional moments? Who are the main characters and what are their characteristics and emotional responses? These are all points where ‘showing’ is much more engaging. Less important action can easily be ‘told’ to move the pace along. A reader doesn’t need to know, for example, when a character is getting out of a car and walking up the stairs to open a door, if opening that door doesn’t lead to some kind of significant event or experience.
‘Showing’ and ‘telling’ both need to be done in varying degrees when writing. The key is to recognise which aspects of your story are significant, and which are less so. It’s always a process and something which even experienced writers have trouble with, but to hone these skills could be the difference between a good story, and a great story.