Show, Don’t Tell

I’m From Missouri—SHOW me!

Okay, truth be told, I’m from Oregon. But in the 30 years I’ve been editing fiction, I’ve discovered a number of issues almost all writers face, regardless of how much they’ve written or been published. If I had to pick the top issue I see over and over, it would be Show, Don’t Tell.

What, you may ask, does that mean? It’s actually pretty simple. It’s the difference between telling us what someone is feeling, and letting us see it for ourselves through dialogue, action, and body language. For example:

Jack was so angry he could kill.

That, my friends, is telling. But…

Heat filled Jack’s face, his chest, his blood. His fingers tightened on the gun. Nobody did this to him. Nobody. His finger caressed the trigger, and he smiled. The fools thought they’d taught him a lesson, but they’d see they were wrong. They’d see it all right…just before they died.

There you have showing. So why does this matter? Telling keeps your readers distant from the characters. Remember, fiction is all about making a connection. Your readers have to care about and be engaged with your characters. Even the bad guys. Showing takes us inside the characters, gets us under their skin, so we feel right along with them.

Does that mean telling is bad? Is it ever okay to tell? Of course. Quality fiction is about balance. Take a look again at the two sections above. What do you notice about them? Right! The showing section is much longer. If you showed every single thing in the book, you’d end up with around 1200 pages of showing. Sure, we’d be inside the characters’ heads, but we’d be exhausted! So yes, there are times to tell. Such as:

  • To give information. Sometimes you just want to move the story along, kind of like skipping a stone over the surface of the water. You’re not trying to plumb the depths of the river, just get the stone as far as you can. That’s called narrative summary, and that’s a good time to tell.
  • When a scene or section of a scene doesn’t warrant showing. Not every aspect of every scene warrants showing. Let’s say your characters are gathering for a funeral, and two of them are going to have a rip-roaring fight in the middle of the funeral. What part of that scene is most important? The fight, of course. Now obviously you could take the time (and word count) to show all the guest arriving, giving us their expressions and emotions, or what the funeral home and casket look like, etc. But that’s not necessary. Better to give us all of that in narrative summary, peppering enough descriptives to give the sense and feel, but not digging deep until the crucial moment.

Knowing the difference between showing and telling is fairly easy. And we’ll talk all about it in my next blog!

Until then, happy writing.

 

8 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell

  1. Avatar
    Donna Pyle August 3, 2011 at 7:41 am #

    Great post! Even though I write non-fiction, these same principles apply. Thanks for the great tips and reminders. Blessings!

  2. Avatar
    V.V. Denman August 3, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    I appreciate your explanation of when telling is appropriate. That clear the murky waters. Thanks!

  3. Avatar
    Kate August 3, 2011 at 10:58 am #

    Karen,

    Thanks for the good tips. I’m wondering if “balance” is instinctive or if it can be learned? I think the rhythm of a story might dictate when to show or tell. Looking forward to your next post….and seeing you at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference!

  4. Avatar
    Marji Laine August 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

    Thanks so much for clarifying when to use telling vs. showing. I think this is one of the hardest elements I’m facing!

  5. Avatar
    Eva Maria Hamilton August 11, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    Very nice summary!

  6. Avatar
    Beth K. Vogt August 11, 2011 at 11:02 pm #

    Excellent blog post.
    Short. Sweet.To the point.
    I’m bookmarking this to refer back to and to share with other writers.

  7. Avatar
    Mary Young (mvy34) August 22, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    Not only short, sweet, and to the point as noted above, but apparently written with some sort of adhesive that makes it stick. Since reading this post 3 days ago, I find myself constantly rephrasing a sentence as I’m moving it from brain to paper.

    Thanks for making me a better writer!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tools from the Front Lines: Emotional Memory - The Steve Laube Agency - April 22, 2015

    […] and cons of telling, or when and why it’s better to show. (I covered at that in a previous post, so go there if you want to read up on it.) Instead, I want to talk today about how to show in such a way that your readers will not just […]

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