Anyone who’s ever tried to learn more about writing will have come across the writing rule ‘show don’t tell’. It’s a tip that can lead to frustration – especially in a world where so much information is obtained from visual media.
Because people are so used to absorbing information from TV, movies and visual advertising (like billboards and magazines) that use very few words and a lot of imagery, it seems logical that when we write a story we might describe the visual only:
‘The man stepped onto the bus.’
This sentence tells the basic fact of an action. It may even be all that is needed to keep the story moving forward. But I would argue that if the only significance of this action is to get the man on the bus, then you don’t need it all. Cut it out and simply start the next paragraph with the man already on the bus. The fact he got on the bus will be inferred by the reader.
Things should not be shown or told when there is nothing to show or tell. The last thing you want to do is to make something out of nothing:
‘The man, fraught with unprecedented normality, moved his left foot to the first step of the bus’s entrance. He didn’t ponder the significance of this action, because there was none to be pondered. Nevertheless, he moved his right foot hence. A wave of no change washed over him as the bright sunlight hit his face. The warmth might have reminded him of his mother, but it didn’t.’
If, however, there is some significance to his stepping onto the bus, then that should be described.
‘Already on edge from the previous night’s encounter, the noisy hum of chatter and music that greeted the man as he climbed the steps of the bus made him rethink his decision to go to work.’
‘Show don’t tell’ is about explaining the why, as well as the what. It describes reactions, and smells and thoughts and emotions and reason. It explains things which cannot be seen and adds a deeper level of empathy and understanding to a story.