The Ultimate Show(vs. Tell)down

advice

#1

Hey guys,

I’ve seen this topic come up a lot, and there seems to be some confusion about this “simple” piece of advice. And because I’m lazy, I decided to write this once so I can just keep linking it, rather than writing new examples every time.

To be clear, this isn’t simple advice, mostly because it is often abused. The main problem I’ve noticed is that no one defines what they mean by either term, and they just say, “You need to show more” or “You tell too much” without any explanation. So the advice comes across as vague nonsense.

Let’s try to unvague this non-nonsense and start by defining what showing and telling actually are.

So what do “showing” and “telling” even mean?

“Telling” is giving the reader information in a straightforward way. It’s reporting what is happening.

Examples

  • It was freezing outside.

  • Mary ran to catch her bus.

  • Tom was tall.

All of these are to the point; we don’t have to figure out any information because it is explicitly stated.

At the other end, “showing” is about creating immersion. The writer makes the reader work for information that they can only get by being fully immersed in a scene.

Let’s take one of our tell examples, and rewrite it by showing.

Tell

Tom was tall.

Show

Tom ducked beneath the door frame.

Why is this second example showing?

We can only understand that Tom is tall by inference. We have to visualize this action in order to realize that, because Tom had to duck beneath the door frame, he must be tall.

The main difference (as I see it) between show and tell is the work the reader has to do. In showing, they have to come to conclusions, and the extra work to get there is what makes it immersive.

Okay, but those aren’t very complicated examples.

Right! Let’s try to come up with something a little more like what we’d actually write.

Let’s say it’s cold outside. If we’re telling, it might look something like

There was frost on the ground. The air was cold, so Emma tried to keep warm by burrowing into her coat.

And if we show the same thing, it might read something like

Frost crunched beneath her boots, and Emma clutched her coat closer, burrowing her face in her collar.

In the first example, I’m handing out information (there’s frost, it’s cold, she’s trying to keep warm).

In the second, I never explicitly say these things, but the reader can infer them. I never ‘told’ the central idea— that it’s cold and she’s trying to stay warm. Even though I don’t, it’s possible to figure those things out.

The difference between telling and showing is the difference between getting a postcard and going on vacation. We get a picture and some information through telling, and we get to experience an entire scene through showing.

But vacations are the best. Why would I want a postcard? It sounds like one of these is better than the other.

Well, friend, there’s a place called Nebraska.

Seriously, though, there are times when you want to show, and times where telling is more appropriate. You don’t want to spend a lot of time showing unimportant details, and you don’t want to gloss over significant events.

So how do I know when to tell and when to show?

Telling is quick, and it gets information out. Sometimes, you just want your reader to know a piece of information so you can move on to the exciting bits of your story.

Examples

  • Two weeks passed before she got a letter in return.

  • It was 14°. The way that affected rigor mortis, it was going to be hell to figure out time of death.

In both of these examples, necessary information gets out, but it’s not the exciting part of the scene. We tell to let the reader know what’s going on, but we’re really trying to get to the juicy parts (like finding out what’s in the letter and solving a murder mystery.)

Telling is really good to use for getting out important information that we don’t need to linger on.

On the other hand, showing drops us deep into a scene. It lets us fully experience what a character is going through. By showing, we can explore a character’s emotions, or we can add intensity to a scene.

Examples

  • As Alex stumbled up to the podium, her hands trembled. She gripped the edges of it until her knuckles went white.

  • Max scanned the first line of the letter before crushing it in his fist.

  • Elena yanked at the handcuffs and swore as the water rose to her neck. Metal bit into her wrists, and a trickle of sweat rolled down her temple.

In all of these, we’re getting the emotions of the characters. None of the examples state their feelings, but we can guess them: nervous, angry, and afraid. Even then, there’s a little more nuance— maybe they’re nervous and scared or angry and disappointed. It never says which, exactly, so there can be a few interpretations.

Showing also gives intensity to a scene because it makes the reader feel like they’re experiencing it with the characters.

Isn’t showing just making my writing flowery, florid garbage?

Nope! The good things about showing is that it doesn’t come down to adding adjectives— it’s all about getting into the scene.

Adding more description doesn’t make a scene showing. Let’s looks at an earlier example.

Frost crunched beneath her boots, and Emma clutched her coat closer, burrowing her face in her collar.

There are very few descriptors in the above sentence, but it still qualifies as showing. The reader can deduce that it’s cold and Emma is trying to stay warm, but there aren’t any adjectives or adverbs describing the cold. While you can add them, it’s not the only factor in creating an effective “show” scene.

Why should I even listen to you?

Do, don’t, whatever. Sometimes @XimeraGrey likes my posts, which is my only qualification.

I will also add that I wrote all of the examples for this post, so A) if they’re unhelpful, I apologize and am willing to try to write better ones and B) while writing this, I noticed how much of a mix I use in my own writing.

Originally, I was just going to pick out examples from things I’d already written, but often my showing and telling were so intertwined that it was hard to separate one from another. That’s totally normal. There are places where you need to feed information to your reader, and places where you want them to fully experience a scene, and often a combination. Recognize where you need one or the other and don’t be afraid of showing OR telling. They’re both tools, it’s just about knowing when to use them.

Anyway, I hope this long-winded post is somewhat useful. (And feel free to let me know if there’s anything I can shore up.)

Happy writing!


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#2

Excellent post! Thank you for sharing. :blush:


#3

That is helpful information!


#4

No problem!


#5

Glad it’s useful :slight_smile:


#6

Awesome post! I like the idea of thinking of both as tools, as opposed to one as a weaker form of writing. Much more helpful to think of it as a way to impact pacing (my faaaavorite thing :expressionless:).


#7

Thanks! I’ve written tons of show v. tell examples lately, so this felt like the most efficient way to address it going forward haha.

And yes, they both are important, especially for pacing. (If it makes you feel better, I’m garbage at pacing my longer stuff.)

I didn’t address it because I got tired, but I also find telling interesting for tone/mood. Sometimes really blunt telling sentences can get to the point in way that showing can’t do.


#8

Nice to see a good example of deconstructing a tired piece of advice that is often over simplified, misunderstood, and presented as a one-sided hate parade on the value of properly balanced exposition and telling of information. I often like to chime in when I see it come up, but I think you said it better than I ever did. The best I ever managed was something along the lines of:

Just like a poker game, writing good fiction means knowing when to show your hand and how to read the tells.


#9

good post (rip me for not knowing how to write traditional but eh​:joy::joy::joy::joy:)


#10

I like that. Yeah, I think there are a lot of “rules” that are never really explained; new writers are just expected to understand them. And it’s fine to use shorthand as long as everyone’s on the same page, but I don’t think that’s really the case with “show vs. tell”.

(And it was fun to figure out what situations showing and telling work for. Those who can’t do write long-winded rambles on the internet. I think that’s how the saying goes.)


#11

There’s no right way to write, and even “traditional” writing changes over time. I’m glad this was helpful!


#12

That cracked me up. Thank you.

This is a FANTASTIC post – should be a sticky. (Mods? Anyone?)

Seriously best post I’ve ever read on the subject.


#13

Haha you’re welcome. I was snickering a little when I wrote it.

And thank you! (I can pin it, but I feel weird doing it for my own post :sweat_smile: )


#14

Many occasions I still prefer using tell than show. Some old-fashioned writers/readers hate me for it, but I have a simple reason: I can only read books about an hour before going to sleep. I bet many many readers do the same in our modern life, where the daily life is drowned in work and duties.
But the brain isn’t active when nighttime comes. It’s preparing itself to sleep, and it just wants a nice warm story to fall asleep upon, and forget the day’s worries.
Thus, in my humble opinion and experience, I don’t want to spend time figuring out what happens. I want to simply know. I’m lazy, I’m tired, my brain is numb; I want direct-to-the point.

So instead, I attempt to flourish the telling instead of relying too much on showing. It may be something that I’ll get shunned at for doing, but I honestly don’t like writing (and reading) otherwise. I don’t care about not looking smart as a reader, and I never once felt like the author was taking me for a dumb person when the author would use a more “tell” approach than “show”. It just flew easier, and made my nighttime reading much more enjoyable. :slight_smile: :heart:


#15

No shame in that! What anyone likes stylistically varies, and it’s not my place to tell them they shouldn’t like it, ya know?

I do think this advice is bandied about without a lot of explanation, though, so I really wanted to explore where the value was in both show and tell.

The beauty of writing is that there are no hard and fast rules. Everything here (and anywhere else, for that matter) comes with several grains of salt, and if you prefer to ‘tell’ and can make a compelling story with it, then who am I to complain? :slight_smile: