Telling and Showing and Psychic Distance

If you’re like me, you’ve probably grown sick of hearing “Show, don’t tell.” I find it to be a useless piece of advice. First, telling has its place in all good fiction. Second, authors seldom find it easy to implement this advice without delving much deeper, at which point our little witty aphorism becomes fairly useless.

The natural follow-up question to “Show, don’t tell” is “How?” And more often than not, the next advice is spectacularly awful. Allow me to share a couple of what-not-to-dos based on the advice I’ve encountered:

  1. Don’t overload your sentences with an excessive amount of sensory information. I’ve come across well-intentioned comments suggesting, “You’ve included taste, sight, sound, and touch, but what about smell?” The problem with this approach is that it overwhelms the reader, diverting their attention away from the crucial aspects—the tension, the actual events unfolding in the scene. Now, don’t misunderstand me—concrete details are important! However, as with all things, balance is key. If you inundate your story with these details while neglecting the core elements, it’s akin to filling a house with trinkets but forgetting to erect walls.
  2. Don’t substitute statements of emotion with facial expressions and gestures. Once again, I’ve encountered well-meaning suggestions that propose showing a character’s sadness through red, puffy eyes, tears streaming down their cheeks, and chest-wrenching sobs. This can lead to two problems. Firstly, it can cause confusion. Not every reader will know that you intend a raised eyebrow to mean incredulity instead of interest. Facial expressions are challenging enough to interpret in the real world. Combine that with imperfectly subjective description of those facial expressions, and you are sure to have a difference of interpretation. Second, in an effort to overcome those confusions, you may end up with exaggerated and unrealistic gestures and actions.

As writers, perhaps we should shift our focus from the dichotomy of showing versus telling and instead consider the art of controlling attention. What is important for the reader to be paying attention to at any given moment? When you have that answer, you will naturally fall into either showing or telling, but the important thing is the narrator is guiding us through the scenes they have laid out for us. They are here for a reason. If the readers along the tour are meant to be watching two characters interact, but are instead caught up in looking at the walls and the floors and the furniture and the clothing and everything except for the story, then the narrator will have a difficult time indeed.

I can feel some of you protesting internally already. So many details crucial to your worldbuilding will get lost! As always, there is a balance. I’m not suggesting removing all those crucial details. I’m talking about cutting out the overkill. If your setting is important in a scene, by all means, describe it. But maybe sometimes…only sometimes, consider telling us about it, rather than showing us. Yes, for real.

“Telling” involves shifting the perspective from the character to the narrator. This is particularly useful when you need to convey details that the character themselves wouldn’t think about. For instance, if you’re listing the names of various flora and fauna, but your point-of-view character isn’t someone who pays attention to such things, it can feel forced or require convoluted explanations of their childhood encounters with a particular flower just to justify their knowledge. While this approach can work on occasion, it’s not sustainable to repeat it constantly. Not everyone examines their surroundings and has everything they see trigger memories. In such cases, it can be helpful to shift from “showing” to “telling” through the narrator’s perspective.

Your narrator is telling the story. Your characters are showing the story.

It’s helpful to think of the narrator as a distinct character, even if they never appear on the page. The narrator possesses their own voice and motivation for telling the story. At times, they may even “borrow” the voice of the point-of-view character, creating the illusion that the character is the narrator when, in fact, they are not. The narrator retains the ability to zoom out of the character’s perspective and employ their own voice.

This is where the concept of psychic distance comes in. Psychic distance can be thought of as how closely blended the narrator’s voice is with the POV character’s voice. When you have a close psychic distance, you are showing. When you use a further psychic distance, you are telling, because you are using the narrator’s own voice.

Psychic distance is something that flows naturally as the narrator moves from scene to scene. When you have a firm idea of what psychic distance is, you can see its effect on different passages in your book. And you can also control it and make it smoother. Psychic distance can help you create the walls and the rooms, and then help you enter those rooms and inhabit the story. You need to be able to carry your reader through the sensory input, to follow through the thread of the story. And story is always the ultimate goal.

I highly, highly recommend reading Emma Darwin’s blog posts on the concept of psychic distance. I find myself sending her link to authors constantly, because psychic distance is one concept that, when it clicks, when you really “get” it, is like a key that unlocks soooooo many other concepts that had seemed hard to understand: showing versus telling, scene versus summary, point of view, narrative voice, third-person limited versus omniscient, avoiding head-hopping, all of that. She also has psychic distance workshops (though I’m not sure of her schedule) if this topic intrigues you.