When to Tell and When to Show

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“Show don’t tell” is perennial advice for writers. However, how do you know when to show or when to tell? After all, telling is necessary in storytelling. Sometimes the reader needs to understand what’s going on in order to enjoy and appreciate what’s happening in those luscious “showing” scenes. If you want to know where to tuck in more showing and how to tell in the most interesting way possible—read on!

Telling vs. Showing 101

To start, let’s look at how telling is different than showing. Consider the following two passages from Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2020 novel Rodham (recommend!). Which would be considered showing? Which is telling? Why?

The first time I saw him, I thought he looked like a lion. He was six foot two, though I knew then only that he was tall. And in fact, his height seemed even greater because he was big-tall, not skinny-tall.

He smiled slowly and broadly, and in his warm, husky, Southern voice, he said, “I know who you are.”

The first passage is a lively, vivid, interesting example of telling. Here the author is informing us of the way the narrator is experiencing her first glimpses of another character. We get a sense for what the other character looks like, but we also start to immediately understand more about the narrator and their future relationship.

The second passage is an example of the author showing. We learn about this character (he’s warm, husky—sexy?—and Southern), and we can sense how this man makes the narrator feel.

Why Tell?

You’re going to have to tell a good portion of your story because otherwise your book would be 10,000 pages long. If you showed every single scene and happening, it would take forever. Also, not every element of the story is worthy of its own scene. Sometimes you need to move the reader into the important parts quickly. Telling is used to convey information, explain something, or provide a level of understanding to the narrative. It gives the reader a bigger picture of what’s going on.

Why Show?

Showing is used to make the experience of the characters come alive for the reader. Vivid, “scratch-and-sniff” writing draws the reader in more fully. This is important because it’s why people read books—it’s the immersive experience. If you only offer a series of scenes but they aren’t fully realized, it’s not as interesting. Anything that makes a reader put the book down and be fine not picking it up again is an issue.

Jazz up the Telling

Telling doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Just because you must tell doesn’t mean it can or should be boring. Telling needs to be in the voice of the character or narrator, and it shouldn’t be dry or boring. Here’s another passage from the book:

I’d been sitting at a carrel for ninety minutes, and every time I looked up, I made eye contact with Bill Clinton—the lion. He was about twenty feet away, perched on a desk and talking to a man I didn’t know.

Here the author is setting up the scene when Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first meet. Though Hillary’s character is telling the story, this passage is infused with life and subtext. Hillary’s already been studying for ninety minutes while Bill’s been talking. She’s spotted him before—he’s the “lion” from the earlier passage. He’s also “perched” on a desk, not seated at it. Her telling of Bill shows a lot—this is what you’re aiming for as a writer.

Squeeze in Showing

You don’t need to think of showing versus telling as binary (even though it’s presented that way). Look for small opportunities to add it in. Dialogue tags are a great chance to do this. The example I gave earlier is a prime sample of this. Physical descriptions are also a nice way to add in more showing.

In short, don’t be afraid to tell when you need to, but always spice it up so it’s just as compelling as your showing scenes.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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