The Otter has been very seriously working their way through a bunch of writing research recently, which is fantastic – but also, for me, somewhat confusing. So, this is my take on it.
The basic aim of “show, don’t tell” is… well, what it says on the tin. But it’s easy to say, and harder to do! To me, there’s two aspects to this: worldbuilding and dialogue.
Do your research. If you want to investigate the details, absolutely do it! Go crazy with how your geography works, the political system, the clothes, the social aspects, language, hairstyles, food, street layouts, hand gestures, how exactly spaceship propulsion works – whatever you want. Get into that!
But don’t put it in the book. Or at least, don’t put that research in. What you want to do is filter it through the characters and the world.
If your political system is X, how does that work? How does that affect everyone? Who is disenfranchised? Who might dislike it? Who does it benefit, and how? So who is going to be wanting things to stay the same, and who wants them to change? How does that affect locations/districts/money/bribery policies/policing…
Basically – how does your world actually work? And this is on a couple of levels: on the ground, for your characters and their day-to-day lives; in the wider aspect, in terms of allegiances and factions, and the wider structure that makes up your world.
So, for example – there’s tension between two factions that’s starting to get ugly. Don’t tell us about it: we don’t need a paragraph explaining the political overview. Show us the graffiti and the swaggers as two rivals pass in the streets. Have a brief snippet of dinner conversation about worries about who the participants are going to need to bribe, and what happens if it changes after the election. Get your spaceship crew to worry if they’re wearing the right colours/clothing/weapons for the area they’re going to. If there’s law enforcement on the streets, what effect does that have on any dealings that may be going on, or any of your characters who may have unsavoury backgrounds?
(That said, it’s not that you can’t do the explaining – maybe someone is a newbie who doesn’t know the background, and asks for it to be explained. But that, again, is filtered through the characters.)
The same with something like geography. If there’s a mountain range between two cities, then communication would be limited – so maybe messages or goods would take longer to get there, and be more expensive, which shows up as someone grumbling about the prices and the travel time and that something is off when they buy it, and the merchant snapping back that they can’t help the distance. If someone lived by a lake as a child, then they would likely be good at fishing – and might be the person who just pulls out a line and rod anytime they stop, and talks longingly of the huge fish back home. It’s someone talking with a hand gesture. It’s the clothing that people wear. It’s taking the long way round to go home, because they’re avoiding a street.
It’s explaining if you need to – if it fits into the story, if it challenges someone or something, if it adds flavour. It’s not telling your reader how your world works: it’s showing them how it works.
It’s a similar thing with dialogue. We don’t need detail; readers can fill most of it in for themselves! We often just need the suggestion, and the effect, rather than being told the details.
So, take the geography example from above:
“How come you always fish?”
“Grew up in RiverTown.”
And that’s all you need. You don’t need to say that RiverTown is on a lake, and the character has fished since they were a child, and… those two lines do it for us.
Show, Don’t Tell also comes up a lot in emotions. Again, you need to think about how the emotion would be affecting someone.
If they’re angry, how would they be talking? Snappy? Irritable? And how would they be acting – might they be turning away, clenching fists, spitting words?
“I don’t believe you!” he said angrily. He was furious that they could think such a thing.
“I don’t believe you!” he spat, turning away. “How can you think that?”
If you tell the reader what to think, you’re taking away their opportunity to imagine something. Let them visualise; let them see. A gesture and a word is far more evocative and expressive than simply telling someone the emotion, and allows you far more variation in what you can show. It also leaves more ambiguity that can be explored by the other characters; in the example above, we – and the other character – don’t know why he’s angry, and that’s something that can be explored – and can lend more emotional depth to your characters.
So, the takeaway: “show, don’t tell” doesn’t mean that you can’t tell – more that you need to think about how your vision would come through your characters and your story, and how that would let the reader imagine what you need them to.