In one of my high school English classes, the teacher would start class by writing a sentence telling an action on the board, and we had five or ten minutes to fill up half a page showing the action. For example, the teacher would write “The room was messy” and we would write a paragraph or three describing the messy room without ever actually saying the room was messy. It’s a technique calls “Show Not Tell” and English wasn’t the only subject to make use of it; my college art classes were fond of it as well. It’s frequently quoted as a way to make your writing “better” and more “professionalism”, but is showing really better than telling?
On an interesting note, anytime you write, you are telling your audience what is happening. To show you need to include pictures, so anytime you create visual art, you are showing and not telling. But semantics and technicalities aren’t my goal for this essay.
Showing and telling are both tools a writer or artist can use to convey a message or story. One is not necessarily better than the other. They both have their strengths and their weaknesses, and they both have their uses--things they do better than the other.
Telling appeals to the intellect. It is much quicker and much clearer. If you tell someone the room is messy, you can convey that in four words and there is no question whether or not the room is messy. If you were to describe a room and the clothes on the floor, the week old pizza under the bed, the overflowing trashcan, you need several sentences, and at the end, some people may think the room is normal, not messy.
Showing appeals more to the emotions. It creates richer, more vivid images in one’s mind. It also requires more of the reader to figure out what you are trying to say, and therefore can be more satisfying when the reader succeeds.
Telling is good if you want to make a point quickly and clearly. Telling the reader certain facts allows you to move thru a story quickly without breaking the rhythm. Showing allows you to bring your reader into the situation, to create an experience and play on their emotions so they feel something for the story as if it happened to them.
Determining which to use in a given situation depends on the situation, what your goal and purpose is, who the audience is, how much time they have to digest the information, and how capable they are of digesting the information. One should not automatically dismiss telling as bad writing and accept showing as good writing. One must take into account the situation, purpose, and desired result to judge the quality of writing.
A wise writer or artist will use the most effective tool for the job.