The next time you set out to write a story, remember how versatile the telling detail can be. One well-placed detail can save you half a page of description. Telling details can be come upon accidentally in the rush of a first draft, or they can be deliberately crafted, puzzled over, and inserted into places where either your character or plot requires a certain kind of image: timidity (a fleeing mouse, half-drawn shades); corruption (broken-up asphalt, fishnet stockings); hope (apple orchards, new shingles). These details are the "way in" to the story, and the readers will appreciate them.
Details are not merely visual; remember to engage all the senses. The dryness of chalk on the fingers can be more arresting than the visual image of a character's whitened fingertips. Sounds and scents and tastes also add to a reader's engagement with the story.
Simile and metaphor make fiction breathe. Simile, which is a figure of speech comparing one thing with another, can help readers "see" what you're describing. Beware of its overuse, lest you be accused of trying too hard to be writerly. Metaphor is subtler than simile, because it does not compare so much as transform. A little girl becomes a kitten when described in terms of feline mewing and skittish motion. Metaphors can be contained in one sentence, or expanded to thread through an entire story as a central metaphor. A snowstorm, a railroad, or a pair of red shoes are images that could be expanded into metaphors for confusion, progress, or heedlessness.
The telling detail is where description begins. It is the device through which you introduce your readers—and sometimes yourself—to the true nature of your characters.
SHOWING AND TELLING
Show-don't-tell, show-don't-tell, show-don't-tell. Wherever you go—writing conferences, university classrooms, writers' groups—you hear this well-used writing maxim. "Showing" is generally thought of as using vivid details and engaging the senses, therefore painting a bright descriptive picture for the readers: the richness of a landscape, the shock of disappointment in a new marriage, the fireworks of rage between Character A and Character B. "Telling" is generally thought of as the absence of vivid detail—uninspired narrative that serves only to explain what is going on in the story: who is related to whom, where the town is located, how Character C got her nickname, and so on.
Neither of these characterizations is entirely correct. "Show, don't tell" is a guideline, not a rule! "Showing" can indeed reveal character and plot in a dynamic way. However, "telling" can often do the same thing as long as you find the right words. Showing and telling are equally powerful and important descriptive techniques. Before we explore their possibilities, let's review their differences.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
Showing and telling are the heart and soul of description, but many inexperienced writers have trouble discerning the difference between them. The following example should give you a fair idea of how these techniques differ. Imagine you've created a mousy little character named Alice, whom you introduce through the technique of "telling":
Version One—Telling: Alice was a timid young woman who looked like a mouse. She was short and skinny, with brown hair, small eyes, and a pointed face. She always peeked inside the doorway before entering a party, thus giving herself a chance to flee in case she saw no one she knew.
Now try this introduction again, this time using the technique of "showing":
Version Two—Showing: Alice hovered at the door of Everett's apartment, chin lifted, tiny feet balanced on their toes. She peered inside, shrinking at the loudness of Everett's new stereo. She breathed quickly, her black eyes darting back and forth, as if keeping her face in motion might prevent her from toppling over. When she finally spotted the wide-grinning Everett approaching, she scurried to the punch bowl, her flat shoes making a scritching sound on the polished wood.
In Version One, you tell the readers that Alice looks and acts like a mouse; in Version Two, you show her in mouselike terms: black eyes, quivering face, tiptoed stance, scritching sound.
Each version is serviceable enough, but each also comes with potential problems. In Version One, the description of Alice is accurate but perfunctory: timid, short, brown hair, small eyes. The passage picks up a little with the image of her "peeking" inside the doorway, then loses steam again with a plodding explanation: "thus giving her a chance to flee . . ." The readers can't really "see" Alice here. You are pausing to tell them something about Alice in order for the next part of the story to make more sense. When Alice finally walks into the party and hides behind a potted plant, the readers understand that she's doing this because she is timid and mouselike. This explanation is fine, for now; you have not necessarily made a mistake in telling the readers what Alice looks like. But if subsequent descriptions take the same form (Reginald was tall and grim and looked like a goose; Evelyn looked like a plucked chicken and had a temperament to match), your prose is going to start seeming flat and expository. You're explaining too much up front, rather than letting the characters reveal themselves through their words and deeds. The readers will feel as if they're watching characters on a screen, or leafing through photographs of characters, rather than entering the story and inhabiting the characters' world.
In Version Two, on the other hand, you allow the readers into Alice's world. We can feel Alice's nervousness because of the motion and sound in the description: she darts and hovers and scritches and shrinks. Again, there is nothing wrong with this passage. In fact, it portrays Alice so vividly that we can easily imagine ourselves at the door of the party with her. The caution with this kind of showing is not to overdo it. Depending on what happens next in the story, you may be lingering too long at the door. Maybe Alice isn't the main character, and all this "showing" is taking the spotlight away from someone else who is more important. Besides, too much showing can start to seem self-conscious, as if you're brandishing your arsenal of similes and metaphors just for the heck of it. Your characters might even disappear in the process. Don't let your prose style overwhelm the story you want to tell.
Too much telling can flatten your story, too much showing can overwhelm it. What's a conscientious writer to do? A combination of showing and telling usually yields the best description:
Combination: Alice stood at the door of Everett's apartment with all the self-possession of a field mouse. Hands clasped at the waist, she stood on tiptoe and peered inside to see who she might know.
The reason the combination works so much better is that a little bit of telling makes the showing seem less labored. By coming right out with the mouse analogy at the beginning, you can give Alice's mouselike qualities a more subtle turn; the phrase "all the self-possession of a field mouse" suggest lots of other mouselike qualities: skittishness, vigilance, furtiveness. You don't have to "show" every one of them. A couple of small touches—clasped hands, tiptoed stance—paints a nearly complete picture. Don't deny your readers the pleasure of filling in some details themselves.
Examine the work of your most cherished authors, and you will find that the show-tell combination permeates their best stories. To admonish writers to show and not tell is to rob them of the deep satisfaction of learning to balance these wonderful techniques.