Painting a Picture with Words

If you’ve ever taken any creative writing courses, then you’ve heard it countless times before: “show, don’t tell.” In fact, you are probably sick of hearing it. But for a beginning writer, this simple bit of common writing advice is actually quite unhelpful. What does it actually mean when we say, “show, don’t tell?” And is there such a thing as too much showing and not enough telling? Do we ever want to simply tell instead of show?

The advice “show, don’t tell” is simply a quick and pithy adage to remind writers that it is better to be descriptive than bland. Take, for example, the following sentence:

Janya entered the old house to have a look around. That was when she found the decaying body propped up in the corner.

That’s telling. Consider an alternative where we show the reader the scene instead.

Weathered floorboards creaked beneath Janya’s shoes as she took a hesitant step inside the vacant shanty, her lantern’s sallow light spilling across the pealing walls and water-logged furnishings. She drew an anxious breath, only to cough when she caught the fetid whiff of blood, excrement, and rotting meat. That was when she saw it—a limp, doll-like shape propped in the corner beneath a boarded-up window, as still as a mannequin but for the flies buzzing about its bloated form.

The first example is succinct and to the point, and conveys enough information for the story to proceed. But the second example paints a visceral picture of the scene and gives the reader a greater sense of what Janya is experiencing. A good editor would likely suggest some ways to tighten up those prose (no, I don’t hire an editor for these articles), but the point should be clear. While telling is to the point, showing immerses the reader in the experience.

But how much should you show, and are there times when you should simply tell instead of show? Yes, it is possible to get too caught up in showing the details—especially extraneous details—and readers will begin to skim past those passages while accusing you, the writer, of padding out your books with too much descriptive text. As great a writer as Robert Jordan was, I must point to The Wheel of Time series as a prime example of over-showing. I love The Wheel of Time, but no one has ever accused Jordan of telling not showing.

One of the hardest parts of writing is knowing when to show not tell and when to tell not show. A simple test is to ask these questions: Are the deeper details important to the scene or the story? Are the deeper details important to the tone of the story? Do these deeper details help immerse the reader? Or would the story be better served by moving on to more important scenes?

Transitionary scenes, such as entering a shop, walking between rooms, or traveling down a road can be aided by “light showing,” but may become bogged down when an author tries to show too much. Imagine entering the reception hall of a wealthy nobleman. As the author, we could dive into detailing the rich wood paneling and wainscoting, the ceiling’s delicate plasterwork, the Baroque gilded trim around every door and window, the plush settees and deep velvet chairs, the polished oak tables, the fine silver tea set the butler just brought in, the gleaming crystal chandeliers, and the aged paintings of the noble’s forebearers all in stuffy, dignified poses. But unless some aspect of the description is critical to the story (such as the character later stealing one of those paintings), then most of those details can be left out. If the author gave a vivid enough description of just the plush settees, the silver tea set, and the Baroque gilded trim, then the reader’s mind will fill in the rest of the room’s lavish décor to match the items described.

Here’s the crux of it all: the picture the reader forms in their minds does not need to be the exact same picture the writer has in their mind. The balance lies in giving vivid enough details to the most notable points of interest in the scene, being sure to highlight smells and sounds if possible, while not drawing out the descriptions of details that are irrelevant to the story, or which add little to the sense of immersion.

A good writer strives to immerse the reader in the story, but must strike a fair balance between showing and telling so as not to drown the reader in words.

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