What went through your mind when you read that? A childhood memory? The urge to read something else? Did you note that there was no period after IT?
The IT may be different for you, but every day, morning and afternoon, I endure an artillery barrage. Instead of bombs, though, I get hit with advice in books, magazines, and especially email, all urging me to do and buy things that will make me a better writer. God knows I need it. But in some ways, I want it to stop. Can we please stop implying that words and sentences either tell or show? “Show, don’t tell,” the advisors boom. What is the difference? Telling is like this:
Henry was nervous.
Showing is like this:
Henry twitched. He pushed at his silverware, and a sheen of sweat marked his forehead.
It is misguided to say that we should focus on show instead of tell—as if they were at war on opposite sides of a literary no man’s land, and show was the good side. Both have a place. Let’s compare the opposing forces.
For true showing, we use audio books, videos, and live action. We hear voice inflections. We see action; we see the emotion on faces; we feel sameness with our own experiences. Actually, the most potent human live-action show is how we behave in front of our children. We flatter ourselves to say that ink on a page has the same force, although sometimes it does. All writing is mere telling. In the show example above, I tell readers how Henry showed nervousness.
But all writing is showing, too. With every word, punctuation mark, and even blank space, readers automatically build or recall mental constructs of feelings, images, actions, ideas, scenes, even other words.
In fact, producing those mental constructs is the entire function of words and language. And, to paraphrase René Descartes, it is how we know we exist. (The existing and the knowing it are two different things. Ants exist, but do they know it?)
Naturally, each word does more, less, and different work from the others. For example, the word “said” is pure tell. It is practically invisible. It carries no color or texture, and it produces nothing in the reader except the idea that spoken noises carried a meaning.
One modern writing commandment wants us to use the word said instead of descriptive words like whined or laughed or sighed. This command has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, and nearly every other writer’s advice source I have seen. A character’s emotion—we are told—should instead be delivered by longer strings of noises that cause readers to feel the emotions. (As if the words whined, laughed, and sighed didn’t do some of that.)
Well now! If authors are supposed to mostly show rather than tell, then shouldn’t we avoid pure telling phrases like he asked and she said and it thought? Best-selling author Jerry Jenkins wrote an entire novel, The Last Operative, without using the word said anywhere. I’ve read it, and to the best of my knowledge, no one said anything. All attribution was by context or conversation. Kudos, Jerry; most readers will never notice because it’s not easy to see that something invisible isn’t there.
Sometimes it is a very good idea to use invisible tell words such as said, asked, and thought. They give readers a rest with quiet tempo beats which also help to emphasize our higher impact words. I do admit that the tell phrase “he asked” is not quite as invisible as “he said” because "he asked" implies a rising final pitch at the end of the noise sequence. And “she thought” implies no verbal noise at all. So, when a character's question needs a rising tone, write something like:
“What?” he asked.
“What?” he said.
When a tell like she said is not enough, we may alternatively use a dose of well-chosen show to convey character and/or drama that digs deep. The danger there is that our showing words may not be clear enough. In the show example above, some readers may think Henry is embarrassed rather than nervous. Critics may say that there is always a good way to show without telling. But to think that even a well-selected showing always produces relevant reader reactions seems wishful. So, when speed and clarity are important, use a simple tell. It’s okay.
Another thing about clarity: Most writers have heard the advice, “One plus one equals one half.” The idea is that when we use two descriptive words, their effect is halved, not doubled. So we should keep the more powerful word and delete the other.
The closer the two words are in their meaning, the better that advice works, but when their meanings diverge, “One plus one” may equal three. Examine these sentences :
“Sure,” the man said, growing a big smile.
“Sure,” the man said, growing a grim smile.
“Sure,” the man said, growing a big, grim smile.
A literary pedant may advise us to choose grim over big, but then readers may imagine a small smile, which misrepresents the man’s emotions. And if only big is used, readers will almost certainly miss the grim aspect. In such a situation it is helpful to think of René Descartes’ coordinate system where “big” follows the X axis so that further right is bigger. The Y axis would then show the “grim” scale where further up is grimmer. Thus, the man’s mood cannot be shown accurately without both words, and when both are used, a lot of other attitude comes along, depending on the reader: 1+1=3.
There are more than degrees of clarity in the no man’s land between the lines of tell and show. For one thing, show is often slow. It risks bogging the story down, and there are times to just get on with it. If we need to move a story quickly on, but also need to give a character’s words color or texture without adding a bunch of show words which bloat the text or at least slow it down, we have the old-fashioned technique of replacing said with cried, sighed, growled, wheezed, and so on.
Modern writing coaches have said we don't sigh or wheeze words, which is puzzling. I can sigh, wheeze, laugh, or growl words. Don't we all push air past our glottis, tongue, lips, and other parts of the vocal apparatus to make all kinds of noises? Most of those noises have names, and they alter a text’s shades of meaning. Years ago, I heard that every baby learning to talk will make every foundational noise of every language. They repeat the ones they hear, and they especially repeat the ones that get results.
Modern authorities do allow those telling heresies from famous writers. I cannot think why this could happen in democracies where everyone is equal under the law. The exceptions must be about things other than law—and other than democracy.
Yes, we also smile or frown while we speak. But smiles and frowns make no noise even if our mouth is open; smiles need no air going through the voice apparatus. So, when we want to tell or show readers that the speaker is smiling, it is bad form to write something like this:
He smiled, “Hello.”
Instead, for a quick shot of emotion, we could write something like this:
He smiled and said, “Hello.”
Or, for an example with show, we could write:
His eyes twinkled amusement. “Hello.”
That last example should be re-written unless it is clear from the context that the eyes and mouth belong to the same face. Assuming they might not, the paragraph—though short—may have three actors: The observer/narrator, the eye owner, and the voice owner. Does a POV observer notice its own twinkling eyes? Normally, no. Is the voice saying hello to the narrator? Probably not. And it is usually bad form to switch POV in the middle of a paragraph. Notice that the first smile example is completely clear to normal readers, even though it breaks the “We don’t smile words” rule and produces a shudder of protest in editors and agents. Maybe I’ll invent a rule of my own and insist that a semi-colon replace its comma so it reads:
He smiled; “Hello.”
Replacements for say or said, even when they call to mind some kind of sound, usually also call to mind some mental attitude. We declare. We protest. There are hundreds of simple, powerful words we can use to carry meanings. Whenever the story is best served by getting those mental attitudes quickly across to readers by using, he sighed, or she protested, then do it.
And so it goes: back and forth between show and tell. My gripe is that the use of said—and other modern guidelines—are usually presented as absolutes. I hope to see American advisors give a green light to the use of replacement words like sighed or laughed for said. …I did read a British article which decried these modern American fads.
The choices of what to use and how to use it are all part of why writing is an art, a science, and a business. Each word calls up mental constructs different from others, and the intensity varies from culture to culture, person to person, and word to word. As authors, we should pick the one that best serves the story without confusing readers—unless we want any inattentive readers to be confused, which is sometimes useful in a mystery.
As a practical writing exercise for showing and telling, I suggest turning some sentence of tell into a paragraph of show. Then, ramp things up and turn a paragraph of tell into a whole page or scene of show. Next, take a page or scene of show and boil it down to a paragraph or sentence of tell. Those drills sharpen not only the techniques of doing both, but also sharpen our ability to see when to use which. They also enable us to respond quickly when an editor suggests that something is distracting or too slow, or that something else needs more emotional punch.
One final thing before I stop:
Yes, any tell may be re-written as a powerful show. And vice-versa. But even good showing and telling does not guarantee good results—witness all the books which critics and publishers liked that didn’t earn back their advances, or all the books that readers liked but the agents and editors rejected. If a book succeeds at holding readers, it is because of a hidden factor that is pass/fail. To put it in a word, any written work should be interesting. Words may tell. Words may show. But if the mental constructs aren’t interesting, the reader stops.
 "He" and "she" are not enough. We shall have to allow "it" now for AI machines, right? Push its button and a machine works. Usually. We never ask what it thinks. But now we may have to.