Sometimes being subtle is more descriptive, I’ve found. Saying “they were brothers” is specific, but not really descriptive. What kind of relationship do they have? Are they estranged or close?
I realized that while writing about the siblings in my story. I did say outright that they were two brothers and a sister—but the important part is actually the way they treat each other. For example, they argue a lot. Especially the older two. And yet they also have pet nicknames for each other. These two things together show both how close they are and yet also how imperfect their relationship is.
Yet it’s also totally subtle. I never pointed out either of these two things (or any of the other ways they treat each other that help suggest their relationship), but it still helps the reader figure out what the dynamics are between the characters, way better than me saying “they’re siblings” does. Or even “the siblings were close, but they had some issues”.
Actually, this is exactly what showing instead of telling is. I am showing their relationships.
I think there actually is a place for telling, somewhat. In this particular situation, who’s to say that my “showing” won’t leave the reader just assuming they’re really good friends, rather than siblings? I think I show their being family well enough, but that’s certainly something to consider, hence why I actually do say they are siblings.
I hesitate to let this turn into another “showing versus telling” post, because there’s already so many of them out there. But it really clicked with me, this time, exactly what showing is.
In all the examples of showing versus telling I’ve seen in the past, it always seems to be smaller things. Say, emotion. Show the emotion, don’t just tell me she’s angry. Right? We know that. (On the subject of showing emotions, the Emotion Thesaurus is awesome for helping with that.)
But showing is so much deeper than that. In fact, it occurred to me, you can show while telling. Take, for example, a description of a room. If you describe the room, you’re probably telling. But while you’re telling me what the room looks like, you can pick your words so that at the same time, you’re showing what the narrator thinks/feels about the room.
Another thing is character arcs. Or character personalities. Do we tell our readers upfront that this character is saucy? Well, maybe, but then what do we do? Show their sauciness. And then as the story progresses, again, we show the character development. What good would development be if it was all told?
Once upon a time, Selena was a spoiled child who had no idea what privileges she had. Then her father declared bankruptcy and she lost everything. She got a taste for what life is like at the poverty level, and she found humility.
That really isn’t how we develop characters. Or introduce characters. Or introduce events. Or…really any of that. I’m pretty sure even the “the end” is telling. (You know, usually we show readers they reached the end by having a back cover after the last page.)
Or world-building! Isn’t that all showing, as well? (Of course, there is the occasional world-building info-dump because I think it’s impossible to avoid info-dumps 100%, but still, that isn’t how all of it’s shown. Or even most.)
Showing goes way deeper than just a simple “her cheeks turned pink and she looked at the ground” instead of “she was ashamed”. And I think the best showing is so subtle, you don’t necessarily know you’re being shown.