Show, Don't Tell

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
This page needs some cleaning up to be presentable.

This needs to be turned into a category.

Unless, of course, you are Lampshading it for laughs.

This is a writing or directorial choice that involves the use of character behavior, rather than blatant or thinly-veiled narration, to establish narrative elements.

For example, say Alice is a Badass:

  • To show that Alice is a Badass, she would spend the entire book doing indisputably Badass things. More pertinently, the book would go into detail: for instance, the work could begin with a Batman Cold Open where she takes on six Mooks without breaking a sweat. In these circumstances, we don't have to be told she's Badass; we can see it for ourselves.
  • To tell that she is a Badass, the narrator, Alice herself and/or other characters around her would merely state that fact. For instance, they might report on previous incidents that have happened in the past and/or "offscreen" while the other characters were busy. Or maybe there'll be no support for the statement whatsoever, but that's unlikely ("Hey, did you hear about the badass things Alice did the other day?" "No, I didn't." "Well, they sure were badass!" *crickets*). In particularly Egregious works, the narrator may state that Alice is a badass, even going so far as to include list of badass things she did, and then never mention it again or—God forbid—apply her badassery in a scene or two.

If you're using a story structure or Point of View that doesn't include a narrator (such as limited third-person, in which you only see into the head of one character), showing is a far better idea, if only because having a narrator suddenly show up just to tell this stuff would break the reader's Willing Suspension of Disbelief. It's even more important in a visual medium, since people don't tend to say precisely what they're thinking or how they feel about it for a hypothetical audience's benefit; watching two characters discuss the details of something they both already know rather than making economical use of a flashback to when one or both didn't know is extremely poor storytelling.

This also relates to sentence-by-sentence writing decisions that have more to do with an author's language and word choice than anything else. In general, something happens in every sentence written. Is the author merely stating those events, or describing them? "Alice was angry and upset over Bob's death" is the telling version of "Alice's heart raced as her husband slumped to the floor, blood gushing from his throat." One of these two sentences has slightly more dramatic power, and it's for reasons of impact that showing is generally advocated over telling.

Now this line is sometimes quoted as an absolute gospel truth, which is not really true. It's certainly a good habit to get into (particularly in character writing; nobody likes being told what they're supposed to think of someone), but it's not an ironclad rule, and knowing when to break it to quickly explain minor details is a major aspect of learning to write. One of the best times to Tell something instead of Show it is when you want to summarize a long period of time—the written equivalent of a Time Passes Montage. Some times, one might Show so much that it becomes Too Much Information.

An extension of the concept in interactive media like Video Games is "play, don't show." Rather than the player being told that the Dragon Lord killed your ninja clan and dishonored you by defeating you in a duel or being shown a movie sequence, the player is allowed to act out the journey to the Doomed Hometown and fight a hopeless duel against his far more powerful foe prior to the game proper.

Rush named one of their songs after this concept.

Tropes used in Show, Don't Tell include:

General Telling

  • As You Know: As you know, this is when a troper like you recognizes as the act of characters giving out exposition nobody in the scene would need.
  • Info Dump: Infodumping (that is information + dumping) is a type of Exposition that is particularly sesquipedalian. Although it can be done in a way that is unintrusive or entertaining, most infodumps are obvious, intrusive, patronizing, and sometimes downright boring. Specifically, if the premise of your story is laughably ridiculous, an infodump will call attention to the fact. This infodump, for instance. The word 'infodump' is often used as a pejorative.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: it makes me sad when writers resort to just having their characters say what they feel in so many words.
  • Exposition
  • Explaining Your Power to the Enemy: When a character's power is spelled out by that character, rather than made clear through visual representation.

Redundant Telling

Telling that contradicts shown behavior or evidence

Showing instead of playing

  • Cutscene Power to the Max: Your character is significantly more able when you're not playing as him.
  • Cutscene Incompetence: Your character is significantly less able when you're not playing as him.
  • Gameplay and Story Segregation: The game mechanics don't work the same way the storyline does, or the story doesn't match the way the player is allowed to behave. This often comes across as the game simply ignoring whatever the player is doing to tell a fixed, immutable storyline.

Acceptable Telling

  • Discretion Shot: Writers imply that something violent or sexual happened without showing it to avoid censorship.
  • Great Offscreen War: Not every writer can convincingly depict a war. Especially if they have no experience with the subject.
  • Informed Conversation: The "would otherwise be repeating what the audience has seen already" and "distill the plot" variants.
  • Noodle Incident: Writers don't even tell the details, to let imaginations fill in the gaps.
    • Noodle Implements: Stating items used, but not how, to let imaginations fill in the gaps.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: when the writers use our imagination to make us fear.
  • Take Our Word for It: Writers describe something they can't possibly live up to by showing it, so they just tell us what it's like, and let our imaginations fill in the gaps.