The title of this blog was inspired by a bit of advice that I used to hear over and over again in undergrad: “Show – don’t tell.” Similar sayings include “actions speak louder than words” and “words are cheap.”
Personally, I like “show – don’t tell” best because it gives a solution. Show. If I want Mr. Morris from next door to be a grumpy old man, I could write, “Mr. Morris was a grumpy old man,” or I could write, “When Mr. Morris turned eighty, he put in motion sensor sprinklers to squirt the neighborhood kids if they rode their bikes through his yard. Whenever one got caught, he would grunt, ‘Ruin my grass, will you. Serves you right!’” One tells the reader that the character is grumpy, and the other shows the character being grumpy.
You might recognize this as explicit and implicit characterization.
Some writers use mostly implicit characterization (showing). Others do a more even mix. I try to show the characters through what they say, what they do, and how other characters react to them. It gives the characters more depth and makes them less stereotypical.
It’s also more work.
Keeping with the Mr. Morris example, the phrase “grumpy old man” brings to mind people we know or have seen that meet that description, so we begin to picture Mr. Morris like them. There’s nothing that really sets him apart or makes him interesting, and the reader is doing most of work (via association). On the other hand, having him put in sprinklers like that tells us that he’s creative, has enough money to do that, and spent some time thinking about this. He becomes more of an individual and less of a traditional character. The writer is doing more to shape the character and relying less on the reader’s associations.
Explicit characterization (telling) is good with minor characters or hasty introductions, using the associations to give an impression of the character quickly for the sake of the plot momentum or to avoid investing a lot of time into characters that won’t appear again. It’s most important to use implicit characterization (showing) for the main characters because they make up a bigger part of the story and need to be more unique to make the story stand apart from others.
What you’re trying to do may change what mix you want. That’s the main problem with rules and writing. As general rules go, though, “Show – don’t tell” is one of the best I’ve ever heard.