I’ve had a few writers ask me, “what does it mean when someone says my work is too much telling and not enough showing?” Generally speaking it means one of two things:
- You’re receiving the most important piece of criticism you’ll ever receive and you should keep it in mind whenever you write or…
- The person reviewing your work recognizes it as good, but doesn’t like it and can’t think of a way to tell you.
Tom is angry.
Tom slammed the door and kicked his shoes into the wall, leaving a muddy semi-circle on the yellowing wallpaper. He stumbled over his dog-eared throw rug as he stomped through the house, only pausing to kick that too.
Both of the above tell you the same thing. Tom isn’t in a very good mood. However, the former simply tells you that, while the latter paints a picture that is easy to visualize. This is the difference between telling and showing.
That said, there needs to be a balance, which is where the second bullet comes in. If you read something like Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, you almost feel like you’re eating a pound of dense chocolate-on-chocolate cake. Yes the language is incredibly rich, but it’s almost too rich to easily digest. Sometimes we need to learn more about Tom, his emotions, and how he processes them. Sometimes Tom just needs to be angry.
And every reader has their own moods and desires. Sometimes they want to know what happens next. Sometimes they want to just immerse themselves in a world and float along with the story. There are great books that are telling-heavy, and great books that are showing-heavy.