What went through your mind? An octagonal traffic sign? A childhood memory? The urge to read something else? Did you note that there was no period after the word?
The writing biz is exploding around us like an artillery barrage. Instead of bombs, though, we get hit with advice. That rain of instruction is useful for churning up our ground of experience so we can turn it into helpful and entertaining strings of words. But in some ways, I want it to stop. Can we please stop implying that words and sentences either tell or show? 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.
Both have a place. 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.
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 think that ink on a page has the same force. 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, 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. (I cannot resist this aside: Some philosophers tell us they themselves do not exist. But in fact, they show us that they are nuts.)
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.
Sometimes it is a 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 it implies a rising final pitch at the end of the noise sequence. But I think this slight anomaly makes the idea of invisible words easier to see.
When a tell phrase like she said is not enough, we may alternatively want to use a heavy dose of well-chosen show to convey character and/or drama that digs deep.
However, there is a no man’s land between the tell and the show. What 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 slow it down? For that, we have the old-fashioned technique—modern writing coaches consider it heresy—of replacing said with cried, sighed, growled, wheezed, and so on. And—heresy upon heresy—adverbs often assist well, too.
Modern authorities do allow these heresies from famous writers. I cannot think why this could happen in a democracy where everyone is equal under the law, so the exceptions must be about something other than law—and other than democracy. For the rest of us, the authorities say that we don’t sigh words or laugh them or growl them.
That is puzzling. I can sigh, wheeze, laugh, or growl while I talk, can’t you? 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 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.
Yes, we also smile or frown while we speak. But smiles and frowns make no noise even if our mouth is open; they 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,’ he said.
In that last example, I added he said to make it clear that the POV observer is the one who noticed the twinkling eyes, and is not the one who says hello.
Visible replacements for said, even if they call to mind some kind of sound, usually call to mind some mental attitude as well. We declare. We protest. There are thousands 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 declared, 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 modern 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 American fads.
The choices of what to use and how to use it are part of why writing is an art, a science, and a business. Some words call up more intense mental constructs than 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:
Even good showing and telling do not guarantee good results. If they succeed at holding readers, it is because of a hidden factor. To put it in a word, any written work should also be interesting. Words may tell. Words may show. But if the mental constructs aren’t interesting, the reader stops.
 We shall have to allow for AI machines now, right? Push its button and a machine works. Usually. We never ask what it thinks. But now we may have to.