Show and Tell 101

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

As a writer, you have probably at some point been given the advice to “Show, don’t tell.” What do people mean when they say this? What is showing? What is telling? When do you show and when do you tell?

There are two ways to create a scene. One way is to tell the reader what is happening outright. For example, suppose you are writing about a man who is worried because his wife is late, you might write:

John was worried. His wife had never been late for dinner before.

This is telling. Instead of saying telling the reader that John is worried, you can show it:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner grew cold.

When you show, you are conveying the worry through the actions and the specific thoughts, rather than through the label “worried.”

Why “don’t tell”?

Historically, many writers relied heavily on narrative summaries, which are “telling” in nature, to get information to the reader. Writers would often introduce a lot of back story, or information about things that happened before the main action of the book. For example, in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the narrator introduces the reader to a complete history of the family in the first few pages:

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was only exceeded by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

So if all these famous authors start out telling instead of showing, why should you show instead of tell? Styles change over time. The rather static but flowery language of previous eras has slowly shifted to the lean, dynamic writing today’s readers and editors prefer. Generally, you should start your story in the middle of the action to hook in the reader and bring them into the story. If you make readers wait for action, you run the risk of losing them before your story really starts. Large quantities of narrative summary do not work effectively as a hook.

Writers who are advised to “show, don’t tell” often overuse narrative summary, which makes the writing seem flat by today’s standards. Think of it this way: How long would you watch a movie where all that happens is a character sits and tells you stuff? No flashbacks, no visualizations, just the character sitting in a chair explaining things. If the explanations are interesting, you might watch for a while, but eventually you have to ask yourself, “Why isn’t this person doing anything?”

Why Show?

Generally, showing has far more emotional impact on the reader than telling does. Remember John, who is worried about his wife. As the reader watches John fidget, it’s possible to fidget with him. You give the reader the opportunity to feel the same worry and to identify with the character. By showing, you give the reader specific actions on which to focus the emotion. If you just say “he is worried,” the reader is more likely to think, “Ok, he’s worried,” and leave it at that.

Show, don’t tell, isn’t just good advice for conveying emotion in your narrative. You can also “show” in description and via dialog.

For example, consider this exchange between Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s obnoxious cousin, and his mother from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Dudley, meanwhile, was counting his presents. His face fell.

“Thirty-six,” he said, looking up at his mother and father. “That’s two less than last year.”

“Darling, you haven”t counted Auntie Marge’s present, see, it’s here under this big one from Mommy and Daddy.”

“All right, thirty-seven then,” said Dudley, going red in the face. Harry, who could see a huge Dudley tantrum coming on, began wolfing down his bacon as fast as possible in case Dudley turned the table over.

This exchange effectively paints Dudley as greedy and spoiled.

Dialog can be used to reveal people’s characters. It can also be used to give information to the reader. This kind of dialog, if not handled well, can become a clunky form of telling. Consider how much information Van Helsing is giving the reader in the following exchange from Dracula by Bram Stoker:

“Here, there is one thing which is different from all recorded. Here is some dual life that is not as the common. She was bitten by the vampire when she was in a trance, sleep-walking, oh, you start. You do not know that, friend John, but you shall know it later, and in trance could he best come to take more blood. In trance she dies, and in trance she is Un-Dead, too. So it is that she differ from all other. Usually when the Un-Dead sleep at home,” as he spoke he made a comprehensive sweep of his arm to designate what to a vampire was ‘home’, “their face show what they are, but this so sweet that was when she not Un-Dead she go back to the nothings of the common dead. There is no malign there, see, and so it make hard that I must kill her in her sleep.”

This turned my blood cold, and it began to dawn upon me that I was accepting Van Helsing’s theories. But if she were really dead, what was there of terror in the idea of killing her?

He looked up at me, and evidently saw the change in my face, for he said almost joyously, “Ah, you believe now?”

When dialog tells too much, it’s often referred to as “As you know, Bob” dialog. “As you know Bob, I’m about to reveal some important information in a long piece of dialog.” (For tips on avoiding “telling” dialog, see Something to Talk About.)

How to Show

Showing is a powerful technique. How do you turn a “tell” scene into a “show” scene? One key is in using powerful verbs and nouns. In general, the fewer adjectives and adverbs you use, the less “tell-y” your writing will be.

For example, take John again, waiting for his wife. Compare the following sentences:

John looked nervously at his watch, then opened the door and looked out impatiently.

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time.

In the first sentence, the reader is once again being told how John feels. He feels nervous and impatient. While this is an improvement over the terse “John was worried,” it is still telling the reader what the emotions are. The second sentence moves the emotion right into the action. He glances, he yanks. He’s done this four times before.

Another way to show instead of tell is to invoke sensory description. Involve touch, sight, sound, smell, and taste where you can. The more you can draw the reader into the moment, the more powerful the scene will be.

Recognizing When You Tell

A big clue that you are over-telling is if you find yourself using the words was and felt. John was worried. He felt anxious. These are telling statements. Another is if you are using a lot of adverbs. John said anxiously, “Where is she?” He paced nervously. Look for places where you are explaining emotions. If they are important emotions, or important scenes, work on showing in these places.

It’s also possible to show, and then undercut your showing by summarizing what is going on. For example, if you wrote:

John glanced at his watch, then yanked the door open and looked out for the fifth time. Still no car. Where was she? Dinner was getting cold. John was worried that his wife wasn’t home.

you would be following your showing with a telling summary. When you are writing for adults or young adults, they already know John is worried because of the way he is acting. Telling the reader he is worried doesn’t add any new information. don’t underestimate your readers—don’t pull them out of the moment by explaining what you’ve already shown.

(Note: Writers will often both show and tell when they are writing for young children. Young children are not able to infer things the way adults and teens can. If you both show and tell what is going on in a scene, you help children to learn how to infer what is happening.)

When to Show and When to Tell

Most beginning writers rely heavily on telling to get their point across. This robs them of the immediacy that will pull the reader into the story. Because of this, “Show, don’t tell” has become a basic mantra for writers. But it isn’t always practical or even desirable to present an entire story by showing it all. An action movie with all action scenes will quickly exhaust the viewer. There need to be down times between the excitement to make the excitement meaningful.

In general you should SHOW when:

  • You want to make an emotional impact
  • You want to convey an image with your words
  • You want the reader to feel “in the moment”

In general you should TELL when:

  • You want to summarize relatively unimportant events
  • You want to convey events over a long range of time
  • You want to give the reader information the characters don’t know

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do show important scenes.
  • Do show more than you tell.
  • Do tell when it is appropriate
  • Don’t tell using dialog.
  • Don’t undercut your showing by summarizing the scene with telling sentences.

Final Poll Results

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