Just about every writing textbook will give you the same piece of advice: show not tell.
Instead of saying that Sir Galahad is heroic, show him doing something brave. Have him fight a dragon or rescue a princess from a tower. That sort of thing.
This also applies in dialogue. Beginners tend to cram lots and lots of description into their writing, like this:
“I hate you,” screamed Penelope, angrily. She was really annoyed with Mark because …
While there is nothing actually wrong with this, it would be far punchier and more expressive if we showed Penelope being angry instead. Have her throw something at Mark. Or say something which leaves the reader in no doubt that she is angry.
Show me her anger instead of telling me about it.
I have just read “Self Editing for Fiction Writers”. This book says that when authors include details like this, it is like a playwright jumping onto the stage to explain what is going on to the audience.
Reader aren’t stupid. They don’t need to have every fact explained to them. Part of the art of good writing is to leave gaps for the reader to fill in. Their imaginations are far more powerful than anything we can write. Our job is to give them enough clues to get their imagination working.
Still not convinced? Then consider Star Wars. The very first one. Episode IV – A New Hope.
Okay, okay, I know it’s a film and not a book. Trust me on this one. The laws of show and tell working exactly the same on the screen as they do in a book.
Star Wars has to introduce us to a bunch of characters we have never seen before. And it does this by show not tell. Nearly every major character has a little action scene to establish their character.
Enter Darth Vader. Cue asthmatic breathing and a menacing musical score. One of the first things we see him doing is choking a captured rebel soldier. We don’t need to be told that he is a bad-ass villain who is prepared to do anything to get what he wants. We can see it for ourselves.
Next we meet Luke Skywalker, a good farm-boy who dreams of escaping to a wider world of adventure, spaceships and girls. How do we know this? Because we see him doing chores for his Aunt, staring wistfully at the two suns and feeling upset when his aunt and uncle are barbecued.
Then Obi-Wan Kenobi comes into view, hiding under the galaxy’s worst ever disguise as Old Ben Kenobi. And who continues to dress like a Jedi even though the Emperor had tried to wipe out all the Jedis. I never did work that one out.
Putting that to one side, no-one tells us that Obi-Wan has magical powers. Instead the film shows him using those powers – first by tricking the sand people and then by fooling the storm troopers. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
How does the film establish Han Solo – a tough, risk-taking mercenary who has to live by his wits and with a good blaster at his side? The film gives us a little incident to show all of these qualities when he shoots Greedo. And, yes, Han does shoot first.
Sometimes we can’t avoid a tell. Obi-Wan makes a little speech when he gives Luke his father’s light saber:
“Your father’s light saber. This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the dark times… before the Empire.”
There is probably no way to avoid this bit of telling. But the film also backs it up with a lot of showing. We have already seen the evil Empire choking rebel soldiers and shooting Luke’s aunt and uncle. We shortly see a light-saber in action. We see the Jedi mind tricks that Obi-Wan can do.
Before Luke can destroy the Death Star in the final reel, we need to see it destroying a planet. It isn’t enough to tell the audience that the Death Star is deadly. We actually need to see it.
There is a scene in the Ron Howard film of Apollo 13 shortly after the iconic “Houston we have a problem” moment. We see the three astronauts arguing amongst themselves about what caused the accident which crippled their spacecraft.
This didn’t actually happen in real life. The astronauts reacted very calmly as they tried to work out what to do.
But Ron Howard knew that this would not give the audience a sense of the danger they were in. So in a movie that otherwise tried very hard to be accurate they deliberately added in an argument scene.
They had to show the danger to the audience. Simply talking about it would not have been anywhere near as effective.
Little things like this often go unnoticed. We simply accept them as extra action. But what is really happening is that the writer is deliberately adding in scenes to show character traits that the story will need later on.