Let the Reader See It…Basically, the distinction is this: telling merely catalogs actions and emotions, showing creates images in a reader’s imagination. It’s the difference between the grocery list and the groceries. Don’t overuse adverbs. The stronger verb eliminates the need for the “telling” adverb.
Use Strong Verbs…As writers we typically have a fair number of verbs from which to choose to describe any given action. If you’re set on making a sentence come to life, break out your thesaurus and dig around for the most vivid verbs you can find.
Let Readers Feel For Themselves…Beware, too, of sentences that seem to tell the reader how to feel, particularly when writing in the third person.
Let the Dialogue Speak for Itself…The content of dialogue, too, is a useful “showing” tool. It can give readers insight into a character’s intelligence and level of sophistication, can hint at his background and even suggest something about his self-image. If you want a character to seem intelligent, let her say intelligent things. If a man’s not well educated, keep his vocabulary comparatively simple (though not necessarily the content of his speech — he might be highly intelligent but simply lack linguistic sophistication…). Don’t tell your reader that a character is inarticulate, show that character struggling to find the right words to express himself. You can do so even through simple interactions. While dialect and regional clichés should, of course, be used sparingly, they often prove quite useful in showing readers qualities in a story’s characters, minor and major. Used well, they can also help delineate characters in a reader’s mind, making the whole narrative more vivid.
On the Other Hand…There are, however, a few good arguments for telling, at least once in a while. The best is simple shortness. Showing almost always takes a good deal more words than does telling, and if an event is comparatively unimportant, you may want to mention it only in passing. (Of course if it’s really unimportant, you should probably consider simply leaving it out.) Likewise, if a character is recounting events with which the reader is already well-familiar, you may want to gloss over it with a tell line:
Jane explained what had happened.
You might decide that allowing the reader to hear some or all of the familiar events in Jane’s voice is worth repeating what the reader already knows, in which case — go for it. If not, this quick line gets the job done and allows you to move on to more immediate, active scenes.
Another, more treacherous argument for telling rather than showing is that telling is less emotionally charged — and therefore less emotionally manipulative. Certainly a litany of events — stripped of strong verbs and adjectives and the emotional baggage they inevitably carry with them — leaves more room for the reader to render his or her own opinion.
The Last Word(s)…Vivid writing grabs readers’ attention and draws them into your story — and showing your audience the action you create is a vital aspect of vivid storytelling. So, in order to avoid the pitfalls of “telling” rather than “showing,” remember these points:
• Use strong, specific verbs, and avoid overusing adverbs.
• Provoke emotion through character reactions and vivid writing, don’t simply tell readers how to feel.
• Use well-placed details to bring scenes to life.
• Use expressive dialogue to show characters’ emotions and attitudes.
Keep these notions in mind and your writing is sure to be more powerful and compelling, the sort of thing that will keep readers coming back for more.
Hope this help with your future writing goals.