Show Versus Tell – HELP!

The “Your Questions Answered” Series

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Could you write about the difference between showing and telling? I am constantly mixing them up. Thanks!

Telling is like giving readers a grocery list. They must memorize facts to absorb your story. For example:

She never stood out in a crowd, any crowd. She had bobbed hair the color of dishwater and expressionless brown eyes. Her clothes were neither in nor out of style. So when a blond-haired man who looked like a model asked to sit by her as she drank her morning coffee, she was amazed.

Showing means ditching passive voice along with evoking emotions, feelings, and memories, as well as incorporating action. For example:

Diedre settled on the coffee-shop sofa she occupied every morning at nine, when she logged in to her computer to show her supervisor he could reach her to solve the latest crisis. Teleworking suited her. It’s not as though anyone paid attention to her when she ventured to the office on Thursdays, anyway. The prospect of dying her dishwater-colored hair never appealed to her, so she could never hope to compete with ebony-haired Zoe or Cheshire, who kept her yellow locks tipped purple. An every-six-weeks bob suited Diedre. Sipping her skinny latte, she studied the brown faux leather shoes she’d picked up on discount and that blended perfectly with the tan jumper she’d scoffed up at a thrift store. What was wrong with melting into the wall? Walls are good. Everyone needs walls.

A male voice jarred into her musings. “Do you mind if I sit here?”

She jumped, barely saving her coffee from disaster.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

She almost told him to go away but stopped when she observed indigo eyes looking imploringly into hers. Tousled blonde hair topped a chiseled face. She noticed a pressed white shirt floating on a built frame. She gulped. “You didn’t. Scare me, that is.”

Your turn:

What differences do you spot between the examples?

Feel free to share your own example. If you cite a published novel, please fill us in so we can discover your great read too.

For the entire series, click here: “Your Questions Answered.”

33 Responses to Show Versus Tell – HELP!

  1. Avatar
    J.D. Wininger July 30, 2020 at 5:14 am #

    You must be a writer Ms. Tamela. Great demonstration ma’am. God’s blessings for sharing your highly developed skills.

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    Joni July 30, 2020 at 5:21 am #

    Show to evoke emotion. Tell to move the story along – eg transition from one location to another. Show as much as possible so reader stays engaged. Tell only as necessary to orient reader.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 30, 2020 at 5:38 am #

    I could show you what I mean
    but that bogs the story down
    and fills up a quick-paced scene
    with odd details that make it drown.
    On the other hand, the tell
    has little personality,
    and you really may as well
    read a shopping list to me.
    What to do, oh, what to write!
    I’m suppose to know this craft,
    but it keeps me up at night,
    and I think perhaps I’m daft
    to have ever tried to bother
    to make living as an author.

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 30, 2020 at 6:16 am #

    Oh, very well.

    Tell:

    Billy-Bob, on his first visit to the Grand Canyon, was professionally interested in the tourist mule trains, but leaned too far over the edge, and plummeted to his death.

    His wife Myrna, recovering from surgery, was clearly upset, but managed to put a brave face on the unfortunate incident.

    Show:

    “Lookee, here, Myrna, they done got mulies!” Billy-Bob was like a kid on Christmas morning. “Raht down they-uh!” He leaned over the edge of the earth’s most famous declivity, the multihued Grand Canyon, and pointed.

    “Now, come on, Double-B,” said his wife Myrna, anxiety mixed with reproof in her voice. “Y’all know you got no head fer heigh…”

    Her warning was interrupted by a scream as Billy-Bob’s foot slipped and he went over the edge, arms windmilling. In his last moment of life he remembered his favourite scene from his favourite film, and passed into God’s presence with a down-Doppler “Whoa SHIIIII…!”, faithful to the cliff-jumping Butch and Sundance to the last.

    His body cruched into a huge flat rock, and thence bounced through the line of mounted tourists, who reacted with horriied shrieks and impercations, and the muleteers winced, sure that some of their charges would lose their seats and follow the hapless hillbilly to an untimely, messy, and inconvenient end (for body retrieval in the canyon is never simple or pleasant).

    The mules, however, plodded stolidly on. They were used to human foibles, and had seen it all before.

    At the Canyon’s rim, a Ranger put her arm around the sobbing Myrna. “I’m so sorry, my dear. So sorry.” There was nothing else she could say.

    Myrna replied, in a choking voice, “We come hee-uh so I could git over my hysterectomy…and now God’s done give me a MISTER-ectomy!”

  5. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU July 30, 2020 at 7:01 am #

    Thanks Tamela. I find ‘Telling’ very appealing in memoirs, short stories and stories for kids. ‘ Showing’ like you beautifully demonstrated gets readers directly in to the character’s thoughts, mind and being most of the times. I enjoy it in romantic and thrillers.
    Is it okay though to mix the show and tell styles in the same piece of writing? What do you think?

    Thanks for sharing. God bless you.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray July 30, 2020 at 9:40 am #

      You can use a balance of what works. Sometimes telling — in very short spurts — can keep the story moving. Consider what works for your genre, too. It’s all about pacing and keeping the reader turning pages.

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    Nora July 30, 2020 at 7:42 am #

    I got called on telling just Monday in my critique group. However I meant to tell and that particular point in the story. I really hope they are I catch it when I do it on accident.

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    Roberta Sarver July 30, 2020 at 7:54 am #

    Tamela, your examples showed the difference quite well. And I’m still chuckling over Andrew’s example. I love hillbilly humor. In fact, I use it sometimes in my blog.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 30, 2020 at 8:12 am #

      Roberta, I’m so glad you liked my offering! Barb’s family has root in Appalachia, and she has a distinct accent.

      When, through work, she has to speak on the phone with clients from that part of the country, her return home can be interesting, because the patois will deepen.. Yesterday she came in the door and greeted me, and I had absolutely no idea what she was saying

  8. Avatar
    Bill Bethel July 30, 2020 at 8:18 am #

    Tamela, your example clearly demonstrates showing vs telling, but please forgive me, I thought there was too much distracting fluff. I would have lost interest in the story. Who cares if her shoes were faux leather or if Cheshire tipped her hair in purple? Just get to the story.

    • Avatar
      Colleen Snyder July 30, 2020 at 9:23 am #

      Bill, I’m with you on this one. Too much description/showing and I’ll put the book down for another. Most of the time, I don’t CARE what anyone is wearing, unless it’s central to the story. There has to be a balance, right?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray July 30, 2020 at 9:47 am #

      Bill and Colleen, a lot depends on the genre and what you’re trying to convey. I agree that this would not be a good opening for a suspense novel, for example.

      As for the example at hand, what she was wearing and what her coworkers are like both tell us something about her character and viewpoint on the world. It’s true that had I submitted a novel or even a first chapter as an example, I would have likely woven in the coworkers and outfit in later. But please consider this is an example written precisely to make a point.

      This is a good example of the fact that audiences are subjective. Many authors who make so much money they can’t spend it all don’t necessarily appeal to me. However, their many fans disagree.

      • Avatar
        Colleen Snyder July 30, 2020 at 11:36 am #

        Truth. Subjective readers. I confess to being a “lazy” reader… get me to the action, now, and save the descriptions for someone else. Your example was perfect for what you intended. And I should have said I appreciated it before I complained about it. Sorry!

  9. Avatar
    Martha Rogers July 30, 2020 at 9:24 am #

    Thanks for the example, Tamela. Like Bill, I may not have added quite as much fluff as he called it. After reading several great writing books on the subject, I finally got it and now use it for one of my workshop topics. To me, the difference is being in the character’s skin and getting a feel of their opinion about self, their reactions and feelings by how they react physically or what show their feelings. A fist slammed on a desk shows more anger to me than saying and also may indicate the character has a temper. Showing and not telling can lead to much tighter writing.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray July 30, 2020 at 9:55 am #

      Martha, a slamming fist is a good example of using an action to convey emotion rather than narrating, “Maximillian was angry.”

      The challenge for any writer is then to say, “How can I put this character in a situation where he slams his fist on a table?” When a character possesses a simmering rage that he’s holding in, a fist slam is hard to incorporate into the story.

      That is not to take away from your excellent point, but to elaborate and to help authors. 🙂

  10. Avatar
    Colleen Snyder July 30, 2020 at 9:30 am #

    Tamela, where is the balance? Too much slows the pace (in your example, I’d have put the book down for another.) When word count is key, look at the difference between the two passages. The first one jumpstarts the story, getting the scene to where the characters need to be. The “show” example tells me that the author is going to be window dressing all her scenes, and I’ll have to sort out what matters and what doesn’t. Years ago (years and years and YEARS ago) I was taught in writing, “If you mention a knife on page one, you better use it by page three” (or five… been so long I can’t remember exactly.) I understand that the description paints a picture for the reader of who the character is. Is there an “overkill” in the painting process? I thought we were all moving towards minimalism…

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    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. July 30, 2020 at 10:10 am #

    Tamela, it’s like the difference between a living experience and a flat existence, between an expressive speaker and a monotone, try-to-stay-awake-with-this-dude speaker. Thanks so much! Awesome!

  12. Avatar
    Steve Laube July 30, 2020 at 10:17 am #

    A reminder to all. Tamela very capably presented a quick example to answer a quick question. The entire blog, including the questions, is only 363 words.

    It is not a paragraph within a complex and complete manuscript of 80,000 words.

  13. Avatar
    Sharon K. Connell July 30, 2020 at 10:39 am #

    I could explain it, but I think this phrase says it all.

    “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

    There’s some controversy about who actually said that, but whoever actually did, they were or are, a writer.

    “…Tell me the moon is shining…” is telling. Duh.

    “…show me the glint of light on broken glass,” would be showing the moon is shining.

    But it can get a little tricky sometimes. I usually go with what the character can see, feel, taste, hear, smell without saying they are seeing, feeling, tasting, hearing, or smelling.

    Chad’s friend sprinted into the building, vs. Chad watched his friend sprint into the building.

    Chad’s skin rippled with goosebumps. vs. Chad’s arm felt chilled.

    A burst of orange flavor in his mouth made Chad close his eyes and smile, vs. The candy tasted like oranges.

    A crash came from the hall, vs. Chad heard a crash in the hall.

    “Smoke?” Chad peeked into the hall. Was someone smoking in the building? vs. Chad smelled cigarette smoke.

    There’s action to showing. You can feel it yourself when you read. Showing involves the readers senses and gives them a more vivid picture of what’s going on.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby July 30, 2020 at 2:35 pm #

      Good examples, Sharon, and one made me laugh. I’ve watched a horse’s skin ripple to drive off a fly, but I’d be really worried if I saw a person’s skin do it. I’d be thinking space alien, maybe a pod person. Thanks for an image that gave me a chuckle today.

  14. Avatar
    Carol Ashby July 30, 2020 at 10:41 am #

    You showed a very clear difference between the two approaches. I think your example would be good for a contemporary romance aimed at women readers.

    I write quests/adventures (both physical and spiritual) with a romance woven through during the early Roman Empire. I have between 10 and 20% male readership, based on reviews and ratings at Goodreads. So I need to show in a way that is vivid but more concise, or I’ll bore my male readers. As you say, it depends a lot on the genre and even the distribution of your readers for that genre as to how long the showing should take.

    With half or more of each novel written in male POV, I have to tailor the length and details of the showing for whether it’s one of the men or one of the women through whose eyes you’re watching the action. I use shorter, crisper showing for the men and a bit looser for the women. That also depends on the woman, with some being quite no-nonsense and others more girlish.

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    Lois Y Easley July 30, 2020 at 3:17 pm #

    Thx for great example!!

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    Sandy Vosburgh July 31, 2020 at 7:42 am #

    Thanks, Steve. I wanted to say it, but it’s safer coming from you.

  17. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks July 31, 2020 at 11:53 am #

    I was there with her in the second example, loved it!

  18. Avatar
    Bobbie August 2, 2020 at 5:26 am #

    This topic keeps me up at night.

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