Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Occasionally I ask readers what blog post topics they’d most like to see. Being that some of my readers are also writers, I receive a variety of requests on different writing topics… but lately one I’ve seen repeatedly is this: What about “Show, Don’t Tell”? How do I do it? What are the rules? I’ve heard it a million times but still have no idea how!
Editors and teachers and well-meaning fellow writers may mark up a draft with “Show, don’t tell!” and no further explanation. Add to this the number of posts currently circulating that say “Show, don’t tell” is all a bunch of nonsense, and things get confusing fast.
I feel you, I really do. The first time I heard “Show, Don’t Tell” was in my very first Fiction-writing class toward my B.A. in Creative Writing in college… and I have heard it many, many times since then. It’s a simple enough concept, right? You should show your reader what’s happening in the story rather than telling them. This explanation is often accompanied by draw readers in, make your story come to life, bring the reader in as part of the scene… and a million other equally-vague phrases. It seems like an easy enough concept… So then why is it so hard to do, and why are there posts saying you shouldn’t, that it’s bad advice? How are writers struggling to master the art of story supposed to make sense of so many vague and contradictory statements?
Typically, the “show, don’t tell” advice is referencing one of two things… either how you present events in your story, or how you present character reactions. In reality, skillful showing means being aware of how you are doing BOTH of these, and making careful choices for how you approach them in your story.
When you read a story that has truly done it well, you’re so pulled into the story that you don’t even notice the technique… which is really its magic. But when you read a story that hasn’t shown, the telling stands out like a blinking neon sign. The narrative feels like a play-by-play bullet list. The characters are flat and/or tell you exactly what you should think or feel about them as a reader. It’s irritating, boring, and feels unprofessional… it may even make you feel like the author is insulting your intelligence as a reader. You can tell the difference as a reader when a story has too much telling, but the seamless magic of showing done well can also make it difficult to break down and identify… so how do you do it as a writer? How do you know whether you’re doing it well?
After all, don’t some ultra-successful stories tell a lot of things? You don’t possibly expect me to draw every single moment out into a detailed scene, right? The story would drag. Can’t you summarize some things?
Yes, they do. And no, I don’t… and YES, you can. The trick is understanding when and why to do each, and then how to do each effectively.
The When and Why:
Here’s the simple explanation…
When it comes to events, some parts of your story need to be emphasized, and some don’t. If your story covers a 24-hour time span (and this would be a rather brief span, for most stories!), does your reader really need to witness every single thing your character does in those 24 hours? Think about it… waking up, breakfast, showers, bathroom trips, grocery shopping, work, exercise, and whatever else your character might do — some of these are tension-building, witness-worthy events, and some aren’t. Does your reader really want to see the entire fifteen minutes your character spent waiting in the checkout line at Publix? Probably not… unless something critical (like dialogue or interaction with another character, or a pivotal event) happens during that checkout-line wait. In fact, your reader probably doesn’t even need to know that your character went to the grocery store, unless getting groceries is somehow necessary to what is going to happen later on. These types of mundane activities take up time in real life, but in story-time, scenes showing mundane or unimportant passages of time feel monotonous and interminable. They make the story drag. Now imagine a story with a timeline that spans days, weeks, or even months — depicting every single moment as a fully-developed scene would result in a novel not even the most voracious reader would be likely to get through.
When it comes to character reactions, there must be a careful show-tell balance as well. If your character is angry, sad, excited… are you telling the reader this? Or are you bringing the reader into the character’s emotions by showing actions and dialogue from which the reader can interpret your character’s emotional or mental state? Readers want to feel connected to your characters, and part of making that happen includes portraying the characters’ thoughts and feelings in a realistic way. We don’t go usually go around just mechanically saying, “I feel angry right now.” We may say that, but it is also accompanied by physiological reactions (trembling, rapid breathing, flushed skin), gestures or actions (clenched fists, stomping, slamming doors), posture (stiff back, crossed arms, hunched shoulders), and dialogue related to context (“How could you do that to me? To us?”).
When you show a character’s feelings through dialogue, you make them — and their thoughts and emotions — seem infinitely more realistic and engaging for the reader. Combine this showing with carefully-placed telling through character introspection that further explains why the character is angry and what he plans to do about it — or, often, how he doesn’t fully understand why he’s so angry or know what to do about it — and now you have a character that seems so alive he’s about to step off the page. Do you have to show every emotion the character feels? No. And you also don’t have to tell/explain every thought they have. But when a character’s reaction is important to their development, to a decision they’re about to make, or to advancing the plot toward the next scene, then you will want to include it… and you’ll want to show the most dramatic elements of their reactions so that the reader can truly experience what the character is feeling in that scene, and then fill in with introspection in your narrative to tell your reader how your character is processing what just happened and what they plan to do about it.
This is what determines the why and when of showing versus telling. If the scene or character reaction is: (1) important to the plot, (2) necessary for character development, and (3) interesting, then you should probably show it. If it isn’t all 3 of these things, chances are you can just summarize the necessary information to move the plot forward and have your narrator tell this info to the reader without actually including the scene.
This really is the core difference between Showing and Telling:
Showing means turning the moment into a full scene (with dialogue and actions), and Telling means summarizing just the important parts of that moment in your narrative. Showing means slowing down to really let the reader witness the scene unfolding, and Telling means breezing past it with no more than a synopsis of what happened.
If you understand your story, your characters, your theme — then you can use this understanding to identify what’s truly important, necessary, and interesting in your story. Show these parts. Tell the rest. It’s that simple. And if you find that you are telling more than showing because not enough of your story seems important, that’s a really good sign that your plot or characters need more development. A truly gripping story has plenty of show-worthy material, using telling sparingly to fill in gaps as needed.
So, now that you understand the when and why… How do you actually DO showing?
Skillful showing really comes down to the ability to provide details (in description/narrative and in actions and dialogue) that convey what is happening and what your character is feeling without having to come right out and say it. Telling is something that generally comes (maybe too) naturally to most writers… it tends to be the showing part that writers need help mastering.
Here are some simple guidelines for How to Show in your story:
There is a difference between saying “Betsy argued with her mom about how having to be home for curfew was ruining her social life” and actually showing that argument:
Betsy slammed the front door and stormed inside, clumps of dried mud peppering the floor with each step. “I hope you’re happy, Mom!” She stomped toward the stairs. “You just ruined my one chance at a date for prom!”
“Hold it right there,” her mom’s voice answered. Her tone was calm. Eerily calm.
Betsy stopped partway up the staircase, a cold thread of fear worming its way through her anger. She had gone too far this time. Could she redeem this? If not, she’d be grounded for sure. Probably for life. She turned, forcing her face into a frown she hoped seemed genuinely contrite. “I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have yelled. It’s just –” She felt the tears coming, for real this time. Good, she thought. Let her see what her stupid rules are doing to me. “Brad was so close to asking me to prom, I could feel it. But because of this lame curfew, I had to leave before he had the chance!” It was true, though it wasn’t the only reason she’d hated to leave early. “Now he’ll probably ask Nancy Miller instead.” Betsy groaned, feeling more tears come as the reality of that statement fully hit her. She wiped her eyes with a shaky hand. “My life is over.”
The telling/summary example glosses over a potentially-impactful, dramatic scene with a dull summary, while the showing version invites readers to witness the scene and feel Betsy’s anger and frustration right along with her. On the other hand, the summary statement “Betsy argued with her mom…” provides little excitement or tension. The dialogue in the shown version brings the exchange to life, letting you piece together Betsy’s reason for being angry through her speech and balancing it with bits of telling introspection to provide context while also letting you feel and experience the tension of the scene along with Betsy. Which would you rather read?
2.Action & Body Language
In the above example, the showing is not solely achieved through dialogue. Notice how Betsy’s actions and body language also communicate what she’s feeling. You know she’s angry from line one, without anyone having to come out and tell that to you. When people experience emotions, both their actions and their involuntary physiological responses (like pulse, breathing, etc) reflect what they are feeling… if you use these to show your characters’ emotions rather than just saying what your character feels, the characters’ reactions will feel much more real and interesting to your reader.
Description is another major way you can show your story to your reader. Tiny sensory details go a long way to communicating not only important setting elements and actions, but also the overall mood of what is happening. In the example above, details like “slammed the front door” let the reader know Betsy must just be getting home, while “clumps of dried mud peppering the floor with each step” shows that Betsy has been outside, and is walking with heavy (in this case, angry) steps.
Action words like stormed and stomped also communicate her emotions, while her movement “toward the stairs” describes some of what the immediate setting includes, helping readers to picture the scene. The description of the mom’s voice as calm informs the reader of some the mother’s emotion or character, and gives contrast to Betsy’s outright anger. Descriptions like this come together to create a scene your reader can picture in his or her mind with clarity and detail, rather than a vague summary of “they argued.” Clarity and detail are essential to good showing.
When it comes to writing, one of the best ways to learn a technique is to see it done (and then practice it yourself). So… I’m not claiming to be the ultimate master of show, don’t tell — this is a technique that has been taught since long before I became a writer, and many, many authors navigate the show-tell balance and weave captivating narratives with exceptional skill probably far beyond mine. BUT, I have found a balance of showing/telling in my own writing (at least a lot more than I used to!). So in the hopes that it might help you, here are some more examples from one of my stories.
This is from an early version of my fantasy book, The Edge of Nothing:
Lex groaned, stirring in his chair. Pain spread through his body, greeting him as he blinked his eyes open. Even his eyelids hurt.
“Look who’s awake,” a voice spat.
Lex blinked again, struggling to focus his blurry vision. A man towered over him. Sour breath filled Lex’s nostrils as the man leaned down, inches from Lex’s face.
“Not so fierce now, are you?” the man sneered.
Lex began to push the man out of his face, but his arms were bound tightly behind him. No wonder his shoulders hurt so badly. His arms were tied to the chair, as were his legs. “Where am I?” Lex asked. He startled at how rough his own voice sounded.
The man slowly circled Lex’s chair, taking him in. “You don’t look so tough. You don’t look much more than a boy.” He shoved Lex’s head, and the chair tipped precariously before righting itself back onto the packed-dirt floor with a thud. “How old are you, eighteen? Stupid kid.”
Lex awakened a day later, aching and shivering. He groaned and opened his eyes, peeling his body from the cold ground. He shoved aside the branches that concealed him and crawled out from his hiding place in the brush. He was kneeling in a small clearing in the dense woods. Skinny-limbed trees towered above him, and dappled sunlight filtered down to the ground through a criss-cross of spindly branches. Lex took a few breaths and rolled his neck, awareness flooding in as he fully wakened. The farmers. Lex jumped to his feet, ignoring his body’s protest, but relaxed when no one else was in sight. Everything was quiet now. It had been quiet all night, actually, but Lex’s nerves were so shot it took him a few seconds to realize he was no longer in immediate danger.
Lex had spent most of the night running, dashing deeper into the forest with the farmers close behind. He didn’t have time to process what had happened, what he’d seen the creature turn into – he simply ran blindly, one arm thrown up to protect his face from the slapping of branches, and tore through the forest.
Example 1 above is almost entirely showing. The movement of the story is happening in action and dialogue, slowed down and displayed in “real-time” for the reader. Rather than saying “the man was intimidating” or “Lex woke up and didn’t know where he was,” these impressions and events are described through the characters’ actions and dialogue.
Example 2 above includes a lot more telling. This is a passage in the novel where time has passed, and I am trying to catch the readers up on what happened. I made a choice that what happened during the night was simply not interesting enough to be shown — there’s only so much “He ran through the woods, and hid, and ran some more,” readers would take. Instead, I tell readers that Lex spent the night running, by providing this explanation as part of the narrative showing him waking up and crawling out of his hiding place the next morning (which is the start of a much more interesting and important scene).
Showing and telling both have a place in a well-written story, but understanding when/why and how to do each of them is very important. When instructors, editors, or commentators say Show, don’t tell, generally what they’re expressing is that your story feels rushed or simplified, indicating that you are doing too much telling. It doesn’t mean you can’t tell at all, it just means that the balance has to be carefully and intentionally constructed.
Let me know what you have to say about showing & telling!