‘Show, don’t tell’ is probably the most over-prescribed advice in fiction writing today: Don’t tell your reader the character’s emotions, show them.
On the whole, it’s a pretty good tip. It’s one thing to write “she’s sad,” yet quite another to show readers a woman alone in the corner of the room, face in her hands, body shaking from the tears. That said, ‘show, don’t tell’ is a guideline, not a rule — no matter how often writing teachers say it. As novelists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens both knew sometimes telling has its purpose.
Our first example comes from the scene in Pride and Prejudice where we first meet Mr Darcy:
His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again. Amongst the most violent against him was Mrs. Bennet, whose dislike of his general behaviour was sharpened into particular resentment by his having slighted one of her daughters.
“Those first two sentences are as ‘tell’ as it gets,” says Lizzy Sisk, editor of Writing Through the Classics, a series that publishes classic novels alongside insights and prompts for writers. Sisk says readers could just as easily assume Darcy’s disagreeable nature by watching him in action—“but there’s a reason Austen ‘tells’ here.”
Pride and Prejudice is written in limited third person from Elizabeth Bennet’s perspective. “She’s the one doing the telling here—not Austen,” Sisk says, “By discounting Darcy so quickly, the writer isn’t ‘telling’ us about Darcy—rather showing us something about Lizzy.” Elizabeth Bennet is judgmental.
Austen also uses this moment of ‘tell’ to show readers how this information affects the world of the story, which Sisk points out really all “showing” is meant to be. In other words, Austen shows here through telling.
Charles Dickens does the same in Great Expectations, also in a meet scene—specifically Chapter II where the reader is introduced to Joe and Mrs Joe:
She was not a good-looking woman, my sister; and I had a general impression that she must have made Joe Gargery marry her by hand. Joe was a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow, — a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.
‘Show, don’t tell’ would dictate Dickens ‘show’ readers Joe’s good-naturedness, weakness, and strength as opposed to describing them. And Dickens does this later. But Great Expectations is narrated by Pip once he’s an adult. Here, he’s looking back on his life as a child. “Think about it,” Sisk says, “When somebody asks you about your grandmother or someone else who’s passed away, do you answer with a long, descriptive story or do you use a little ‘tell’?” Most people, she contends, use ‘tell’ as a natural way to share stories from their past. “By starting with ‘he was always nice to me’ or ‘he was kind’—the same way we start talking about people we’ve lost in life—Dickens’ storytelling is more natural.” And it’s this natural storytelling, she adds, that helps readers connect to Pip.
Do you ever ‘tell’ when conventional writing advice says you should ‘show’? What other examples of ‘tell’ have you seen in classic literature? Sound off in the comments.