I often get confused in writing about whether or not something is showing or telling. For example, if my character wears a mask through which he can’t see, and I as the all-knowing narrator/writer explain in a small paragraph that his race can also orient themselves by sensing life energy around them, am I showing or telling? Is this a bad way to give this information to the reader, and if so, what would be a better way?
You are telling, in your example, as written.
I struggle with show-not-tell because in my opinion everything is telling you something. Even the showiest phrase tells you something concrete. But, that said, some things are more ‘telly’ than others.
Further, I struggle with this, because there appears to be multiple ways to 'show.' There does not seem to be an agreed upon way to show. But, on the flip side, this at least gives you options.
One described method:
What appeals to me most, as a method of showing, is the idea of the literary iceberg, where a few words are well-used, but what is unsaid is what is most evocative. Hemingway’s five word story: "For sale: baby shoes, unused” is the classic example. This is telling you that you can buy a pair of new baby shoes. But what it is showing you is that someone expected a baby, and that expectation was not met. Presumably the baby died, which is much sadder than a shoe sale. Finding a way to use words in this way seems to me to be a powerful means of showing.
A second touted way to show:
Is through dialogue. But this does not mean that all dialogue is showing. In fact, telling in dialogue (is easy to spot when you are on your game and) perhaps hits more of a flat note than telling in narrative.
Nevertheless, through dialogue one can show emotion, expectations, plans, dreams, hopes, motivations, and so on, without expressing them. Dialogue is also flexible. The best dialogue is (arguably) not progressive but rather revelatory in unexpected ways.
“Hello. How are you?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“Fine. Can I help you?”
“No thanks, I’m just looking.”
“Let me know if you need anything.”
This might be a normal exchange that you overhear in real life. You might guess where it takes place and what’s going on, without any of that explicitly ‘told’ to you. But, it’s rather dull. You can do more with 26 words.
Dialogue that is less of a progression, more of a scene, is often thought to be more powerful.
“I need the latest copy of Rolling Stone.”
“Wait ... you were here yesterday -”
“Nevermind, I’ll get it in the subway.”
“I’m calling the police.”
You can pick up on a little more action in this. You still know it is a place of business, the word count is the same, but there’s a little more packed into it. More is shown, even though you were never told many details. The dialogue is not a simple progression; none of the lines follow from the others.
Telling this scene in narration would be something like:
She went into the magazine shop, but as soon as the check girl recognized her, she panicked. She ran out, just as the girl was calling the cops.
This version is definitely telling, and most people think it is inferior. Up to you.
A third way of showing:
Through narration, rather than dialogue. The classic example is (I believe) attributed to Chekov:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me instead the glints of light on the broken glass.
It bears mention that this approach is almost opposite the first, because more words are used, to develop the sight, sounds, etc, of the place.
So there you have it, three ways of showing. There are probably others.
You asked about a mask that cannot be seen through, and said this is not a problem for the character because he has extra-sensory perception (ESP) of some sort. To 'show' this information, you can write it into dialogue in some fashion, and it’s up to you how to do this. (But do not simply ‘tell’ through dialogue.)
Or, you can describe what the character is feeling and experiencing. That would be a likely approach by many. Tuck in the experience of the mask, and of his circumstances. Give some of his internal thought process. Something like:
The mask was scratchy, and he kept sneezing. Is this made of wool? he wondered.
He felt the characteristic pull, from the left. That might be the wall. He tried to ignore the blindfold. Dammit, it’s hard enough navigating in the dark, without wool allergies to deal with.
Yes, that was it, a definite pull from the left, and an emptiness straight ahead. Thank the goddess, that’s a window. Moving, one foot, Slow, go slow, then the other, so as not to wake his captors, he reached the window. Outside, energies moved left and right. A street.
He'd have to be quick, the noise of traffic might wake the others. He found the latch, a cold metal clasp. Please you Goddess, a soft landing! The fates must have heard him, for in one smooth motion he lifted the glass and fell backwards, landing with a soundless ‘whump’ onto the grass below.
Sorry, what does ESP mean :)? Nov 26, 2017 at 10:40
@KlaraRaškaj they edited it into the answer, but in case you didn't see that, it stands for Extra-Sensory Perception.– user27611Nov 26, 2017 at 22:19
If you can, stay within the POV of your characters. That will help readers to stay in the experience, to stay connected to the character.
So if you're in this character's POV, give the information through the character.
How does the character experience the sensation of life energy? If you know that, you can describe what the character is experiencing, and what meaning the character makes of it, and what significance it has to the character, given the character's intentions in the scene.
As a bonus, being visually limited by the mask offers a great opportunity to get this information into the story. The character would feel a certain amount of frustration at the limited field of view, and would naturally compensate by paying more attention to this wonderful racial life-sensing ability.
So both the need to use this ability and the experience of using it would be on the character's mind. So all you gotta do is stay in the character's experience.
You are telling and should not be.
"Show don't tell" comes from the film industry and their need to restrict dialogue, for many valid reasons of verisimilitude. So nobody should say "I am angry," they ACT angry. In other words, consider the consequences of them being angry. What does an angry person do? What do they look like?
This same maxim is transported to written fiction for the same reason: verisimilitude.
Instead of you, the author, telling the reader about an ability (which you can do in a short paragraph), it is better for the reader to 'see' the consequences of such an ability. How does it make the character feel? What is the effect on their actions? That can take many paragraphs, but it is better:
When you TELL a reader something, you give them a fact. Facts are very easy to forget and have little impact, and facts are just boring to read.
When you SHOW the reader something, the consequences of a fact, you give the reader an experience in their imagination. Experiences are much easier to remember than facts, and these imaginary experiences are, in fact, why the reader is reading: They are fun, the imaginary experiences involve our emotions and are the big payoff in reading. We triumph with Harry Potter and fear for the safety of brave hobbits.
Anytime you try to explain a character's actions by stating a fact or characteristic about them, you are telling instead showing.
Don't tell me Harry is brave, make him do something brave without saying the word 'brave'.
Don't tell me Kathy is beautiful, find a way to show that other characters find Kathy beautiful (without saying the word 'beautiful'!).
And don't tell me the landscape is breathtaking. Take somebody's breath away without saying "breathtaking".
This is harder work than just telling, and requires more words and description to imagine the experience than to just label it. In my own writing much of it is done in rewrite, I often 'tell' as a shorthand, then 'show' on rewrite, sometimes expanding one line to a few paragraphs so the reader experiences the feelings of the character.
So in your example, close your eyes and imagine what it is like to feel the life forces around you, those close, those further. Can you feel them in other rooms? How far does this sense range? Just this room, or blocks away? Miles? How do you map them, like candles in the fog, or stars in the sky? Can you tell the difference between young and old? Sick and healthy? Human and mouse? Write about it. The reader wants to know what it is like to have this sense, not just that such a sense exists.