One of the hardest things to learn for me in writing was when to show the reader something, and when to tell them.
That probably sounds pretty cryptic in reading it first, and I don't blame you.
This blog will go over the differences between the two and how it can benefit your writing (and stories) to know when to tell, and when to show.
What is TELLING?
Telling is nonverbal. Telling is where you give the information to the reader upfront and don't require too much detective work by their character. Telling usually is factual, and doesn't have any visuals or cues that the character needs to pick up on... for lack of a better definition, telling is just telling them. You might tell a character's backstory up front without prompting, or answer a character's question plainly with an answer.
What is SHOWING?
Showing is ALL visual. Showing means the character that your reply interacts with has to do some detective work based on what your character is physically doing or saying. Showing isn't always as simple as just giving the answer to the other writer. This leaves space for interpretation (either good or bad depending on how you write it) but can be more rewarding in the long run.
Telling: The girl was tired.
Showing: The girl sighed heavily and set her head on the table with her arms crossed. Her eyes drooped on occasion.
Telling: The ice cream looked delicious.
Showing: The waffle cone was topped with vanilla ice cream that was colorfully scattered with an assortment of rainbow sprinkles.
Telling: The people in the photo were close to one another.
Showing: In the photo, the two were standing side by side. The man on the left looked as if he was in mid laughter, the other wearing a grin.
Telling: He was happy to see them.
Showing: The normal grumpy expression melted off the man's face when they walked into the room.
When SHOWING is beneficial
The point of choosing to show over telling is to provide the reader (and their character) with something to respond to and to be curious about in their next reply.
Showing allows for places where the other character can interact instead of nodding their heads to a fact that is being plainly told. It leaves them with detective work, which can make for a much more rewarding experience both to read and write. Showing can also set the scene and provide details about how people interact.
Showing lets your character be more expressive.
Showing relies on facial expressions, actions, dialogue, and all those other details that make your character them. This gives the other character information on how your character behaves and acts. Show off those traits and quirks!
When TELLING becomes a problem
Think of the first time you started a new job and chatted with a brand new coworker. In real life, it's generally pretty uncommon to give (or receive) an origin story immediately when you meet someone. The normal encounter generally starts with small talk or an overview of details such as name, occupation, how they ended up choosing that job, and so on. It can take quite a while to feel comfortable with sharing deep information for some. On the other hand, it can be overbearing to be given a large amount of personal information in one sitting.
Telling becomes a problem when it turns into a history lesson or a lecture for the reader.
It can feel like homework to keep track of too many events or side characters in one sitting. Try and keep 'historical' telling as small chunks that won't overwhelm the reader. Telling too much information at one time can mean capturing less of your reader's attention if they start to feel like the reading is becoming work. On the contrary, if you give this information in smaller intervals, the reader will have a better chance of retaining more details, and more chances to ask questions!
Trust me: there will be more chances to talk about character backstory. It doesn't have to be done in one go.
Too much telling becomes a problem when they try and respond to your post.
Have you ever been told a long-winded story by a friend, and you end up just listening and nodding at a certain point? This isn't an overly bad thing if you care about what they have to say, and it makes you a great listener.
The only problem is, that 'listening and nodding' becomes rather hard to write in rp. If a character's response has a full paragraph of 'telling', then that is a full paragraph without any visual cues to write off of while they are talking (especially if that paragraph has no breaks). If the character is telling a story that is full of names, and carries on over a long timeline, then it can be increasingly hard for your reader to narrow down what to respond with or what to ask questions about. The effect is information overload to the reader and in turn, to their character.
Telling becomes a problem when the reader is given the information, not the character.
If you tell facts or information without intertwining it somehow visually, you are giving the reader information that their character hasn't even interacted with. That makes the information hard to use. Make sure your character is the one telling, not the writer!
She picked up the photo of the two men. The man on the left was her husband.
...So who knows the identity of the faces in the photo? Only the reader does. Their character in this case does not. The character has no way of knowing since the information of who the men are was told, not shown. How can we fix it?
She picked up the photo and smiled at the two faces. As her eyes were drawn to the man on the left as she looked back toward her wedding ring.
Not only is the second example more informative visually, but it can also increase the chances that the other character acts questions. Showing first can lead to telling more about the topic after. (That's a bit of a lame example I'll admit, but it's all I have right now and hopefully you get the point.)
Has this been a problem in the past? Start Asking Yourself:
Did I give the information, or did my character give it?
What do I want to achieve from telling the information upfront?
What do I want them to take away from telling them this?
Is there a more visual way to represent the point I'm making?
How can I give visual or dialogue cues to make them ask about it?
Could I talk with the writer I'm collaborating with so we can make sure there are places in the plot to share this info?
(Odds are, they have spoilers they'd love to get across too. Collab and find the right time to share them.)
Conclusion (and Disclaimer)
Every character has a story to them, and every writer is dying to let it be known. Trying not to give spoilers is the death of us all, and that sweet sweet backstory is just too cool not to share...
But cool it.
Don't give away all your tricks right away. Fight the temptation and let the characters grow and learn about one another over time.
Sometimes telling is an OK way to get information across quickly and effectively, it's even necessary at points.
Get more mileage out of your information by showing first.
Give your reader detective work to do and give their characters something to ask about.
It's more satisfying to answer a curious question than it is to talk about your character first, isn't it?
You got this far, let me know in the comments what you struggle with in writing and what other topics might be helpful.