On a micro level, ‘show, don’t tell’, means not writing the following words: ‘he was happy’, but showing that your character is happy through his actions and his reactions to the situation he’s in. In describing his state of happiness, you also allow for the passage/chapter you are writing to happen in what feels like real time. In other words, you are not rushing and you are inviting your readers to share for a while your character’s frame of mind. This will prove useful when his happiness comes to an end — it has to, otherwise your plot will not move forward! — in shaping the dynamic of your story. By virtue of contrast, your character’s sudden change of circumstances and mood will seem ever more striking and poignant.
On a macro level, ‘show, don’t tell’ means giving enough space for your readers to develop their own take on the story and characters and, ultimately, to make both their own. Presenting the entire back story of a main character in the first three pages of a novel, as well as a head-to-toe description, is the surest way to kill the readers’ interest. A more impressionist approach, adding information here and there as and when is needed, allows for them to be kept on their metaphorical toes.
From the writer’s point of view, such an approach gives more flexibility to the writing process. For one thing, how can you possibly know your characters inside out when you have just started your novel and have just met them? As your style and plot develop and mature through hundreds of hours of writing, so do your characters. Fixing them into a tight frame from the word go, means depriving yourself of the opportunity to change their personal development, to change your mind and the course of the story.
If my characters were fully formed before I even started writing, if they had no secrets of their own, I wouldn’t want to write their story. It is because I don’t know everything about them, that I am happy to spend so much time in their company!
Showing, instead of telling is not just an exercise in restrain, it also implies the capacity to relinquish complete control over your story and let your instinct take over. As the writer, you get to decide pretty much everything — and let’s face it, such a level of freedom is, at times, truly intoxicating — but not every choice has to be made right from the start or consciously. And not every answer has to be given by the end of the story either.
I have been asked many times to give my interpretation on the ending of my seventh novel, Heading for the Wall. Every time the person was keen to check if they were right. And every time, my answer was the same. Instead of sharing my own interpretation, I asked them what theirs was and I listened attentively. While I enjoy every minute of the writing process, my story is ultimately meant to be read by others. The minute it is finished, it belongs to readers who will make it their own. And when they do, my job is done.