Updated: Sep 19, 2018
Show, don’t tell. It was one of the first pieces of writing advice I received. It livens up writing, fleshes out character, builds narrative tension, but as is the way with every writing rule, it’s not absolute. Telling has its place too.
When to show
To highlight conflict: Many writers have a tendency to skim over climatic opportunities with telling. Showing the conflict—whether it’s a physical combat scene or a friction between characters—is not only engaging, but a great way to build tension and reveal character.
To build character: How does your character think and respond to conflict? Are they combative, stubborn, submissive? Showing this helps flesh them out in the eyes of the reader.
Tip: dialogue is a great way to do this.
To capture emotion: Simply stating “Jessie was sad” is not a particularly exciting way to fill us in on to a character’s mental state—or help us connect with a character. Instead, showing him blinking back tears and swallowing down a sob (all relatable sensations) not only shows that the character is sad, but fills us in to the type and intensity of the emotion.
Moreover, emotions are not always felt in isolation. A character might be both happy and sad, upset and angry, excited and nervous, in love and jealous—the combinations are almost endless. Showing helps to reveal these complex mixes.
To aid exposition: Showing, especially showing through dialogue, can help readers fill in blanks of a character’s backstory, rather than resorting to the dreaded info-dump.
Let’s take a look at an example:
Amelia was angry with me, all because I couldn’t make Harry’s birthday. We argued. It wasn’t my fault the job of a lifetime happened to land on the same day. But she didn’t seem to care. To her, family was everything.
“What do you mean you can’t make it?” Amelia’s voice rang shrill over the phone. I pulled the receiver away from my ear with a grimace. It was just a birthday party. Harry was only one, it wasn’t like my nephew would notice my absence.
“It’s not like I want to miss it,” I tried to explain. “An offer came through. A job, Amelia. I’ve worked so hard for this. It’s everything I—”
“Don’t talk to me about your bloody work,” she snapped. “That’s all you ever talk about. It’s all you ever do.” A pause, then a sulky, “we never see you.”
“Now that’s being unfair. I was home last month, but you were busy.”
“Please, Mary. It’s important.”
In the showing example, we learn the same amount as the telling snippet—and more. The two characters are more fully fleshed, and we learn that they live a distance apart.
However, showing has its limitations.
In our age of visual storytelling—movies, TV, games, social media—there’s a demand for a certain cinematic style, even in writing. However, as Namrata Poddar questions: “are we, in 21st century…society, overvaluing a sight-based approach to storytelling?”
Telling is a literary device not many other mediums have—and when it’s wielded well, it’s an excellent tool in a writer’s arsenal.
When to tell instead of show
If showing is the cake, telling is the icing. You can have a story that’s just cake, but it can taste better with a (thin) layer of telling on top.
1. To reduce word bloat
There is no escaping that showing adds words. Most of the time, those extra words are worth the time crafting. However, there is such a thing as too much showing. By that, I mean, showing everything—such as a character waking up, getting out of bed, putting on their clothes, eating breakfast and driving to work, all before the inciting event of the story kicks off.
Sometimes it’s about choosing what not to show. Reveal the essential details, then let the reader fill in the blanks. In these instances, less is often more.
For example, instead of showing an entire ablution sequence, give us a run down, perhaps zeroing in on one or two aspects.
James was a man of routine. Every day he’d collect the paper, eat his eggs and spinach, and then count exactly twenty-four strokes of his toothbrush before the mirror. [Telling] Today, the bristles grated against his teeth. Ten, eleven, twelve, he switched sides, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four. Spit, gargle, rinse. He pulled a face at his reflection, peeling his lips back with to make sure there were no wilted greens stuck between his molars. [Showing]
In this sequence, we get a feel for Jame’s character, a type A personality, without an inflated word count. Moreover, this detail doesn’t get lost in the mix, which is especially important if his personality is to provide a source of conflict within the story (imagine his reaction if his neurotic ex-wife came back to town, or aliens landed on his front lawn).
The takeaway? Don’t show, reveal instead. And yes, sometimes revealing can include telling.
2. To pick up the pace
This is tied to word bloat. Over-showing can make a sequence difficult to follow and drag on the pace of a scene—especially scenes that involve conflict or rising tension.
There are a few tricks authors use to work around this. Such as varying sentence length and using either Latinate or Anglo-Saxon words appropriate to the situation. Learn more here.
You can also choose to tell—not much, but just enough to keep the story trundling along.
Here’s an example from M.R. Carey’s, The Girls With All the Gifts:
Sergeant Parks had planned to let them sleep until the sun’s well up, because he knows how hard the next day is going to be, but as things turn out, they wake up early. What rouses them is the sound of engines. A long way off at first, and rising and falling a lot, but it’s obvious that whatever they hell it is, it’s coming closer.
Under Park’s terse directions they grab their stuff and get the hell out of there.
3. To quickly convey important information
That is, to quickly convey important information that provides context to the reader. Some circles call it a narrative summary. If it goes on too long, it can turn into an info dump, so keep them short and to the point.
He was angry at her for missing dinner. Angry at her for working late to pay the bills. Angry that she’d rush out again the following morning, leaving him to deal with diapers, tantrums and Billy’s Lego all over the floor.
Most of all, he was angry that he’d let it happen.
But now, staring down at her body, the only thing he felt was empty.
In this instance, the narrative summary provides a concise summary that provides context to the events that follow—without getting bogged down in detail.
4. To clarify for the reader
We are used to devouring stories on the screen. And often, we visualise our words with a full-blown cinematic movie going on in our heads (or at least I do). The danger of this, however, is that readers aren’t “watching”, they’re reading. They don’t have the benefit of an actor displaying the visual cues of character, let’s say Sarah, showing fatigue. Instead, we might read:
Sarah rubbed her eyes. – Why? Maybe she has an itch?
Sarah rubbed her eyes. God, she was tired. – Well, that explains it!
Even if you add more showing, the snippet of telling helps to confirm what we’ve just read:
Sarah rubbed her eyes and yawned. God, she was tired. – Here, telling helps hammer the point home.
In a nutshell, small telling signposts help readers to interpret what the writer is saying, as the writer intended. It eliminates misunderstandings.
5. To get inside a character’s head
Following on from above, a movie is not a novel. Movies rarely capture the internalisations of characters, or the chime-in of a narrator. This is something unique to the written (and occasional oral) story. If we rely solely on showing—as a movie might—it becomes harder to introduce these internalisations that brings us, your readers, closer to the character/s.
Telling is a device that helps to get inside a character’s head.
Dylan was late. Amy chewed her tip and checked her watch yet again, watching the second hand tick past the twelve. Another minute lost. They were running out of time.
Constantly showing makes this difficult. Here’s the same section again without the telling:
Amy chewed her tip and checked her watch yet again, watching the second hand tick past the twelve. Another minute lost.
It’s not terrible, but the first instance with the telling draws the reader into Amy’s head more.
Read more: Good Telling in Harry Potter
Telling is an effective tool—when used in the right way. The trick is knowing when and where. If in doubt, show in the first instance, then tell. Where most writers run into problems is when they over-rely on telling—after all you can’t have a cake made of only icing.