Show and Tell: When to Use Which

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Show and tell is great for kindergarteners and comparing scars, but as writers, we want to focus mainly on showing, not telling.

The difference between showing and telling in writing can be a finicky one. Sometimes you have to tell in order to give more depth to your story. Sometimes you should show in order to keep your readers from being bored. It’s your job to decide which you need to use at a given moment, but here are some tips to help you along:

Don’t Leave Us Hanging

An example of bad telling vs good showing I see often is with the physical descriptions of characters.

“Thomas saw Jess looked attractive in the dress she wore to the party.”

Ok. Great. Jess looked attractive, but that is all that is told to us.

Instead, show us:

“Jess wore a tasteful, but attractive black cocktail dress that open in a slit down one leg. It accentuated her black patent-leather pumps and the elegant string of pearls that wound around her neck. Her hair was expertly arranged by her own hand and one intentional black strand fell in front of glacier-blue eyes as she strode across the ballroom floor to the crockpot of Vienna sausages—her third helping.”

Notice Thomas isn’t mentioned in this passage. It’s because he doesn’t have to be in it. If we’re experiencing the world through him, we understand this is what he sees. By saying “he saw,” the writer is telling instead of showing.

Look for instances of “telling” words in your prose, like:

Feel/Felt/Feeling

Hear/Heard/Hearing

See/Saw/Seeing

Asked

Sounded (like)

Think/Thought/Thinking

And so forth. Essentially, you’re looking for words that could be replaced with descriptions or action. If there are burning tires in the room, the reader knows they smell like burning tires. Don’t patronize them by telling them so. Instead, have a character gag because of the burning tires. Yeah, that’s the stuff!

Ok, That’s Enough

Ok, now we understand Jess is beautiful; that the character watching her finds her attractive. This is fine, but if we do this every time Jess changes into a new outfit, your readers will be bored with her and the person describing her. Establish what they look like and move on with the story. Going too far in explaining what someone looks like makes readers have to pause and wait for you to finish. It also takes away your readers’ job.

Do not make your readers sit through needless showing when you could tell and get to the good stuff. You can recognize these moments by reading through your prose and pointing out the parts that bore you, or seem monotonous. Like this:

“Thomas reached for the brass doorknob, his hands shaking. When he finally mustered the courage to wrap his hand around it, he took a deep breath before even thinking about turning it. You can do this, he thought. Slowly, he began to turn it. But, it wouldn’t move. He noticed it was still locked and he had to use the key in his pocket. Slowly, he began to reach for the key…”

You get the point. It’s boring. Let’s just open the door and let the reader see what’s on the other side already.

“Thomas unlocked the door and, after a deep breath, pushed it open.”

It shows he’s nervous. It shows he’s opening a door. That’s all he did in the first version too. Don’t make us sit through it.

The more you practice being aware of what needs showing and what needs telling, the better you’ll be at doing it right the first time. That goes without saying, though—practice makes perfect. So, experiment with your show and tell and, whatever you do, never stop writing.

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About Author

John Paul Schmidt is a former news journalist. Now he's a freelancer by day and bartender by night while he works on his novel.

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