You can show in a movie, play or cartoon/comic book, but you can only tell in a novel. This is a truth in my brain. When you write a novel you are telling a story. You may imagine the scene in your mind, watch the characters act out your plot, but you are telling a story when you write it down otherwise you would act it out and that is showing.
I hear writers say they are showing with words but my mind says that writing is telling. When the reader reads the words they can imagine the pictures the words convey in their heads but that is them showing themselves, not me showing them. I am still telling the story.
In a movie or play, you have a time, place, description area, a name area, an action area, and a speech area. The actor interprets the directions to include tone, volume, body language, etc.
You are such an idiot.
You have no idea what you are talking about.
In a novel you only have sentences in scenes in chapters.
“You are such an idiot.” Mary laughed. (body language)
George shouted (volume), “You have no idea what you are talking about.”
She caught the flash of anger on his face as his eyes darkened and his lips thinned before he hid his anger behind a bland expression. (body language)
So, when I hear an author say “Show, don’t tell” I want to take a sledge hammer and whack the side of their head until they start using good words to explain what they really mean. Not some homely advice that does not help me to improving my writing.
However, I finally had a light bulb moment.
Holly Lisle was explaining sloppy writing using he said, he laughed, etc.
Mental sloppiness permits writers to write, “You’re such a doofus,” he laughed, rather than “You’re such a doofus.” He laughed. Or even, He laughed. “You’re such a doofus.”
Better would be, He laughed and tousled my hair. “You’re such a doofus.” The first sentence is simply wrong. The second and third are okay, but vague in their meaning. The speaker could be an asshole, or could be angry, could be harsh. The added action in the final sentence demonstrates the context of the words.
Yes, novels do tell, but in such a way that the reader can paint a picture or run a movie in his mind from the placement of the words which portray name, action, speech, time, place, description, sense, emotion, but particularly the context of the words. So I tried it …
“You are such an idiot.” Mary laughed softly. (body language) (context = not angry)
“You are such an idiot.” Mary laughed sarcastically. (body language) (context = disgust)
George shouted (volume) (context = is he deaf, is he far away), “You have no idea what you are talking about.”
George shouted (volume) as he held his head inches away from her face (context = angry), “You have no idea what you are talking about.”
She caught the flash of anger on his face as his eyes darkened and his lips thinned before he hid his anger behind a bland expression. (body language) (context = definitely angry)
She caught the flash of anger on his face before his lips moved closer to her lips. (body language) (context = changes the loud voice from anger to argument when the body language changes)
She tried to bring her hands up to press against his chest but the muscles in her arms wouldn’t obey her brain. (context = she put her brain on hold and just felt emotion)
Now I can go over my growing pile of completed stories and do one more edit (sigh) and waste another year fixing what I have written or, I could start a new story using what I have learnt to date and write an even better story keeping context in mind.