Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Show, Don’t Tell

Okay, so we’ve been hearing this line since we were in grammar school: don’t tell the readers, show them. I’m not sure about you, but I always remembered being confused over this little line. After all, if you are writing, then surely you are telling someone something.

But this phrase appears over and over again because it is key to making decent writing great writing. So today I’ll flesh out what this line means and discuss areas of your manuscript that you should take a second look at to make sure you are showing rather than telling.

Show, Don’t Tell
So, what does this phrase actually mean? Think of it as watching a movie versus getting a recap of it from a friend. Showing moves the reader closer to the action.

For those of you who read my post on summarizing, you are one step ahead of the rest. Summaries are the perfect example of telling the readers information. Showing is a moment by moment narration of the events unfolding. Readers are thrown into the experience as it is unfolding, not given a recap. Summarizing, on the other hand, is a concise retelling of events. Like I mentioned in my earlier post, summaries have their uses. Just make sure they don’t take over your story.

Not sure what the difference is? Here’s an example:

Telling (Summary):
That evening I ate in the mess hall and chatted with Ace and Spider. Afterwards I went back to my room.

My cheap plastic tray slapped against the table as I sat down.
“Hungry much?” Ace eyed my heaping plate.
“What can I say, it’s hard work teaching snotty kids how to shoot an arrow.”
“Do you hear that?” Spider cocked his head. “Sounds like the world’s smallest violin is playing for you.”

Did you notice the difference? One briefly retells the events while the other puts the reader right there in the action.

This is perhaps the most common and most lethal area where writers tell rather than show. You’ve all come across these books. The ones where each character is introduced, along with a mini history. Sometimes these backstories apply to terms, sometimes to settings, but in every scenario, the writer is telling the reader important background information on the subject.

He was introduced to Janna Callahan. Heiress to a hotel empire, Janna had few qualms about money and many about her men. She was known for her quick temper and her love of the limelight. In the last week alone she was featured in two separate magazines.

 To some of you, this looks okay, to others, this looks silly. Despite your various reactions, writers do this all the time, and it gets old quickly. The problem with backstory (such as this example) is that it halts the book’s momentum, and it can lose reader attention. 

Instead, a much more intriguing and skillful way of inserting this information into the story is slowly letting it unfold, either over time, or through observations. For example, if Janna is such a celebrity, maybe paparazzi are trailing after her—and maybe she’s throwing smiles their way. Perhaps she’s holding shopping bags or wearing a shirt that says “Thank God I’m Single.” Whatever it is, showing this information is far better than stating it.

Alice felt awful.
Frank looked like he was in pain.
Elated, Katie jumped up and down.

These are all examples of telling the reader an emotion rather than showing it. I’ll be the first to say that yes, it’s okay to tell an emotion—you are not an amateur for doing this.

However, the true reason that showing is so much better than telling here is that by showing an emotion, you come up with more original and more believable reactions. Think about it—everyone feels awful at one point or another, but not everyone demonstrates it the same way. The same goes for pain. Maybe Frank, from the example, is sweating and cringing, or biting his lip. Or maybe his face is red. Besides being original, readers will learn a lot more about your character personalities if you can manage to show, rather than tell, these emotions.

None of what I mentioned is an absolute, and I barely scratched the surface of this discussion. But hopefully you have a better idea of how to enrich your text by minimizing those areas that you tell rather than show the reader.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. Great post, Laura. The tough part, as it is with so many areas of writing, is striking the right balance between the two, and knowing when you need to show and when it's better to tell. I actually have no problem with the way you introduced Jane Callahan in your example, but it does depend on context, and how often you do that. I have read books that introduce characters every couple of pages with multiple 'telling' paragraphs about them, and it can become tedious.

    1. Hi Jeff! I actually later realized that my example was almost too concise to really be noticeably bad, so I was nodding the entire time I read your post. :) I think the problem, like you said, hinges on the context and the number of times the author falls back on this type of description, as well as how long the paragraph (or paragraphs) of description are. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. I think this is a very helpful post about showing. Especially the part about emotion. I always thought it was good to just say so-and-so was sick so that the reader could imagine their own ideas about the situation, but I didn't realize that it could add character depth to describe it myself and make it character specific! Thanks!

  4. Hi V,

    Isn’t it surprising the depth it can add? But don’t worry—sometimes it’s perfectly fine to tell as well! Thanks for the post!