So they keep telling new writers. But if you don’t tell, how're the readers supposed to know? You’re telling a story, after all. So what do they mean, anyway?
‘Tell’ means summarizing what happened, without much regard to how the characters felt, whereas ‘Show’ means relating what happened, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. Instead of saying George was a miser, show that he refused to donate to a charity, even though he had a ton of money locked away, allowing the reader to infer that George is a miser. Instead of saying Susan is beautiful, show that her sister is jealous of the way people stare at her in a restaurant. The reader will infer that Susan is attractive.
Example of ‘Tell’:
On her way home, Susan picked up groceries because her husband was such a slob. She met her long lost friend Ryan, on whom she had a crush in high school. He had a little kid now.
And the reader says, “Hmm. So what? Does she still like him? Did he like her back? Did the meeting mean anything after all these years? Why should I care?”
The same scene in the “Show” mode could be something like this:
Exhausted from typing the brief, Susan wanted nothing more than to go home and crash. But she knew the kids would be hungry. She had seen little Mark pour out the last drops of the 1% milk into his cereal bowl, while Miriam had half a cup of orange juice. Susan would have to make a pit-stop. If only Peter would behave like a real father and help out once in a while…But it was a night of terrible judgment that made her marry the slob. Now she was stuck with him. She knew he must have watched TV all day, chomping on chips and salsa. It was up to her. As usual.
She made a U-turn into Broadway and drove into the parking lot of A1-supermarket. Grabbing the cloth bags from the trunk, she rushed into the store. As the glass doors slip open, she almost bumped into someone. The man dropped his grocery bag, spilling its contents all over the entrance of the store.
“Sorry!” She said, bending down to help him pick up the bread and a bag of diapers.
“Susan?” he said, holding a can of baked beans.
She looked up at his face. It was vaguely familiar. His faded blue eyes and dirty blond hair and those freckles on his nose. Oh My God! “Ryan?” Her heart was pounding. Her stomach was in knots and her mouth dry. How could it be that after fifteen years, he still made her feel that way?
He grinned, his eyes crinkling up just as she remembered, when she knew every line and curve of his face.
He grabbed her in a massive bear hug. “Where have you been?”
She struggled out of his grasp. Diapers! He had bought diapers!
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Sunanda Chatterjee is a practicing physician in Southern California. When she is not by the microscope making diagnoses, she loves to write fiction.