Another installment from Unravelling Writing Advice series.
Firstly, what is “tell” and what is “show?”
Telling – He was tired.
Showing – His limbs became heavy, and his eyelids fluttered.
Okay, so that was a quick example. But you get the point. The first example outright tells us how he feels whereas the second describes it, ergo, showing. Showing helps the reader connect with the character’s senses and emotions in a more descriptive way.
Now… there’s a problem here.
The whole “show, don’t tell,” is bullshit. How can writers show everything without spilling over their word count in the thousands? We’d end up with books the size of suitcases. Look back to the examples. Three words vs eight. If you showed everything, you’d double your narration and then some.
This is where I use the “show vs tell” idea. It implies the exact same thing, that describing senses works better for the reader than showing the senses, but it also accounts for when it’s not necessary.
One way to avoid this is to be wary of how often you add descriptions. Not every line needs to have this. Sometimes, not even every paragraph needs this, but you should choose those carefully.
The other side of “show, don’t tell” is in scenes. If you want to make backstory or memories more meaningful and avoid info dumps, you can show them in an active scene. But again, it’s adding word count. I try to show what I can in flashbacks, dreams, or a memory without overdoing them to the point they become annoying. Short and sweet and rare are key with these.
Not all backstory needs long explanations or flashbacks, so this is where you can tell the reader in a summary while being careful not to fall into info dump territory. Honestly, I tend to take the whole “This three line paragraph on a key point of history that helps explain how these magical beings came into existence is an info dump,” with a pinch of salt. But what do I know. I only read bestsellers with multiple paragraphs of history lessons that mean nothing to the scene, so surely I can drop three fricking lines.
So when you’re wondering how to explain through pages and pages of showing, ask yourself if you really have to. Can you show this, or is it better to tell it?