Showing vs. telling is a very tricky topic for many writers to not only master, but understand in the first place.
This is because showing vs. telling is not one simple topic, but a pantheon of topics, depending on what you are writing at the time. You see—writing is not writing one certain way. To become a proficient writer, (one readers will want to read), does not mean mastering one skill.
There are three main aspects of writing, each with their own nuances. When it comes to the topic of showing vs. telling, it requires you to learn different tactics, depending on the aspect of writing you are currently using at a given time in a story.
For now, let’s start with the most used aspect – Narrative Prose.
In narrative prose, you are describing things.
As with the other aspects, narrative prose has its own subsets of classifications. But first and foremost, narrative prose is used to describe things.
Like everything in the city of Xanthia, the underground subway intersection in which they stood encapsulated the prosperity this kingdom had enjoyed for hundreds of seasons. This terminal was one of many scattered beneath the city, though it was the largest Valimane had encountered thus far. A wide, shallow-stepped stairwell led here from the ground floor of the Temple before continuing down into the lower levels of the complex. Marble tiles covered a raised platform resting beside the railcar tracks. A mangled railcar sat dead and lifeless, two of its passenger coaches listing sideways, no longer resting upon their guide rails. In contrast to the destroyed carriages, pristine tapestries hung between alcoves inset with ornate sculptures. Intricate murals adorned every wall, while cleverly disguised gloworbs cast a warm, dim illumination over it all.
Yet even in the massive expanse of the opulent tunnel, the air reeked—a mix of smoke, sweat, blood, and the sickly-sweet aroma of burnt flesh.
One rule of thumb when it comes to narrative prose in relation to showing vs. telling is this: if you describe something the camera can see, you are showing. If you describe something the camera can’t see, you are telling.
Now, while this is true for the most part, it is also misleading.
You see, one of the powers of prose as a medium to tell stories is that it’s not limited in the way a comic book or film script is. In other words, unlike comics or film, in prose you are “inside” the main character’s head at all times – the Point of View (POV) character. This means you can immerse the reader deeper into the feelings and emotions of THAT character.
(We don’t head hop. You get one character’s head to be in per chapter or scene. DON’T HEAD HOP!)
This means we have some freedom with narrative prose. We can also add in “exposition”! While some people will scold you and make it their mission in life to point out how terrible and telly exposition is, those people are missing the point of prose. Without SOME exposition, your narrative prose is boring, uninteresting, and not immersive for the reader. That being said, like everything in prose, using exposition is all about balance. Too much exposition will turn the reader off in the same way too little will.
Take my above example. The first line has a tiny bit of exposition in the first sentence. In the opening line, I give information (exposition) that the city of Xanthia has been a prosperous city for hundreds of years. The camera could never “see” this. So technically it’s a tell. But that’s O.K. It’s a tiny droplet of information that adds to the flavor of the text.
Remember, it’s all about balance. Overuse exposition and your readers will hate your work. Don’t use it at all, and they will hate your work.
Another trick when it comes to lacing in exposition into your narrative prose is to make sure it’s personal to the POV.
Have I sworn allegiance to the just, or simply the victorious?
This question clawed at Valimane Dray’s mind as he passed his gaze over the imposing group assembled in a loose circle beneath the Temple of Wisdom.
Outside of the POV passing his gaze over the others in the room, none of the above could be seen by a camera. But it is personal to him (my POV). He is questioning those he works for. This information helps the reader to relate to the POV, and come to care about his plight at a deeper, more personal level. Sure, it’s “technically” a tell, because it is absolutely exposition. But it’s a good tell that enhances the story for the reader.
So to sum up, when you are writing narrative prose, make sure you adhere to the rule of thumb that when you are describing “things”, try to stick to things that a camera could see. However, never forget that prose has one huge advantage in the fact that you are inside the POV’s head.
Use that to your advantage to help immerse the reader deeper into your story.
Hate me yet? Good.