One of the keys behind good writing is “show, don’t tell.” The difference between “showing” and “telling” itself can be hard to tell, but it creates the difference between engaging storytelling and mechanical plot description.
Implied action and emotion can go a long way. Saying, “It was very scary” will let the reader know on a conscious level that the situation is scary. But to describe the details of the scary situation lets the reader fill in the gaps themselves with their own imagination. This strikes the reader at an emotional, rather than intellectual, level.
To demonstrate this, I’d like to present Emily Carroll’s excellent short comic, “His Face All Red”. I’d recommend you read it (which takes 5 minutes) on her website before continuing with this post.
While a format comic does make “show, don’t tell” easier to do since it doesn’t entirely rely on text, The following text has spoilers, so read the comic before continuing.
“His Face All Red” uses a lot of showing and only a little telling. Let’s look at each panel individually.
The panels show the isolation and lack of popularity of the protagonist. This is cemented by the line “This man is not my brother.” which emphasizes the lack of relationship (while at the same time implying that the man should be his brother). The story does not tell, “My brother is more popular than I am.” or “This man is an imposter.”
The brother’s status symbols are described over four panels. This seems like telling, but it is showing. The story does not tell, “My brother is very well off and has high status.” but gives examples showing this instead.
In this panel, the story goes ahead and tells, “I killed my brother.” Having some telling is perfectly fine, and here it is used for dramatic effect because the brother clearly looks alive in this frame.
This panel is pure “telling” to present some exposition.
There is a lot of information conveyed in these panels. Not only is the brother well off and well-liked, but that the brother is superior to the protagonist is shown by “(I have no animals)”.
This is reinforced in the next two panels when the townsfolk laugh at the protagonist but not the brother. The story does not tell, “My brother is respected but I am not.”
This also establishes the third time the parentheses text are used to convey the protagonist’s private, jealous thoughts whereas the normal text is his more objective narration: (and my brother’s face, his handsome face) / (I was safe, I have no animals). The story does not tell, “I do not let people know it, but deep down I am very jealous of my brother.”
And finally, this shows that the brother is a genuinely kind person who doesn’t lord his social position over his brother; he comes to his brother’s rescue by being inclusive with him in the hunt. Although the brother is unaware of the protagonist’s jealous feelings. The story does not tell, “I tried to gain the respect of the townsfolk, but my brother unintentionally stole my spotlight.”
The next several frames seem like they use telling because there are several descriptive sentences, but it is actually showing. The protagonist describes several disturbing things he sees in the forest, but the brother finds them unremarkable. The story does not tell, “The woods were scary, but my brother was not scared at all.”
The story does not go into a description of the beast, which is appropriate since it implies the protagonist did not get a good look at the beast before running away. There is one frame with the protagonist wide-eyed with fear and another with the text, “I hid.” The story does not tell, “I was afraid.”
This “red flash” is a technique that gives the reader a sense of something violent happening for a brief instant, but it does not give much clue as to what. (This leaves the reader wondering if the beast was killed, the brother was hurt, the protagonist was hurt, or something else.) The story does not tell, “A shot rang out.”
These frames are basically “telling”. Note that the “just a wolf” line the brother says continues the theme that he was not scared while the protagonist was. The story does not tell, “My brother was not afraid at all.”
More information about the brothers’ relationship is conveyed. While the brother is genuinely kind, his insensitive laughing at how the protagonist hid shows that he is unaware of his jealousy.
Again, the normal text is the protagonist’s objective narration but the parentheses text is his private, jealous thoughts. The story does not tell, “This would be another reason for the townsfolk to praise my brother and laugh at me.”
Again the “red flash” is used. This time though, the reader knows that it is associated with a violent moment, and because the wolf is in the frame the reader knows that the wolf is not being shot. The story does not tell, “I shot my brother.” or “I finally had enough.”
The next several frames rely on the pictures to tell the story instead of text. The story does not tell, “I dragged my brother and dropped him in the hole, and then I left the woods.”
This exposition isn’t really “telling”. It is the protagonist’s given explanation so that the story does not have to tell, “I made up a story about my brother being killed by the beast.”
The story does not tell, “The beast must have been the wolf, because the attacks stopped that day.”
There is a lot of exposition but this isn’t really “telling”. The story does not tell, “I became respected and wealthier afterwards, and I didn’t feel bad about killing my brother at all.”
This is all telling. At this point, the reader doesn’t know the “brother” is a doppelganger beast. But the “brother” being the beast is hinted at by using the identical “(most strange things do)” text.
The story describes the townsfolk’s reaction: “The joy. The joy on all their faces.” The story does not tell, “Everyone was happy to see him.”
The story does not tell, “I was nervous about my brother’s return.” Instead it shows the protagonist nervously clutching his neckerchief and not accepting that this was really his brother.
The brother is seemingly oblivious to being shot and dropped in the hole, and instead backs up the protagonist’s made-up story (even though he couldn’t have known about it if he just came from the woods.) The story does not tell, “My brother had no memory of the events.”
These frames also do not tell a very obvious fact: “I am forced to publicly accept him as my brother, because I could not explain how this was not my brother without telling everyone I shot him. The double seems fine with this arrangement.”
The story does not tell, “I haven’t gone crazy, because the coat is physical proof that this wasn’t my brother.” or “I had proof that this wasn’t my brother, but no one else was recognizing it and I couldn’t point it out because the doppelganger would expose me.”
The story does not tell, “I began to feel nervous.”
This is just telling.
Notice how the protagonist always makes objective statements, but never directly says, “I feel X.” Even in this frame, it’s phrased as “Is this guilt?”
The story does not announce the intentions of the protagonist, and just lets the images do the work.
The story does not tell, “My brother was still alive.” or “This was my real brother, and the one in the village was a double.” (This is implied by the fact that the doppelganger would not turn to face him, however this brother does.) Nor does the story tell, “I had a choice to make.” It simply ends.
“Show, don’t tell” is given as writing advice so often that it is almost cliche. But what Emily Carroll’s “His Face All Red” demonstrates (shows, if you will) is that effective storytelling relies on leaving things implied or indirectly stated for the reader to pick up on. Some telling is good for presenting exposition to the reader (it also speeds along the plot during the less dramatic moments), but the telling isn’t overused (and it is VERY easy to use too much.)
But by relying on the intelligence of the reader to pick up on these subtle cues Carroll makes a very satisfying story, and so can you.