I had an email after my last post, inquiring after the specifics of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. After reading it, I felt that I should clarify the difference between the two methods.
(Warning: Bad examples follow.)
The letter lay on the coffee table beside a crumb-laden placemat and a newspaper and a glossy orange piece of paper advertising oil changes partway across town. The address had been handwritten in pink ink, the smooth glossy swirl of gel-pens. He made himself a drink. He listened to music, Bach first, then Handel. Partway through the winding, disjointed verses of ‘We Like Sheep’ he stood up, picked up his keys, and slipped his wallet in his pocket. He moved partway to the door, stopped, turned, and returned to the table. His hand shook with fear as he opened the letter, the key chain still dangling on his little finger giving a metallic rattle as he tore the paper.
Showing only: this example uses nothing but visual clues as to what’s going on. There’s no blatant emotion given to the audience, it’s all imagery. It gives no explanations, no internal dialog.
He found the letter after he had arrived home, and the sight of it instilled a deep fear. Unopened responses could mean anything, the possibilities turning a once rational head to something panicked and imaginative, circumstances winding into other hypothetical circumstances born of the haunting words ‘what if’. The confidence in his first query crumbled and died, turned to salt as it looked back to the destroyed city where his hopes had once lain. Stalling didn’t help, nor did his evening drink, and he listened to classical music until finally he could take no more of the anticipation. He must face it, or he must leave, and for a moment leaving sounded like a better alternative before he forced himself back, gathered his courage, and approached the paper once more.
Telling only: This is telling. I described nothing, and gave only the barest hints of the elements in the scene, instead focusing on the cause of the shaking hands from the last paragraph. It includes details and feelings that were left out of the first one. But it also doesn’t set the scene.
Neither of these are right or wrong. They just focus on completely different ways of storytelling. One might be right and one very wrong for a particular project. But to dismiss the latter as ‘bad practice’? You can show this badly by losing the point in boring details. You can tell this badly by not explaining the fear, and subsequent courage, well enough to follow believably.
Add or remove detail as is needed.