"Show, don't tell" is one of the most common phrases new writers will hear. Why? Because "showing" is at the core of quality fiction and creative non-fiction writing.
However, neither telling nor showing is right or wrong. Both have their merits and place within storytelling, though in terms of fiction, showing should be the predominant technique, as it helps to keep readers engaged.
Most writers start out telling stories rather than showing them. So what’s wrong with that? And what does show, don’t tell actually mean?
The difference between showing and telling.
Showing is close up. It’s visceral. It’s sensory.
Showing is using scene – dialogue, action, thought, the senses – to evoke feelings within the reader. It’s about leaving space for the reader to interpret meaning and to immerse themselves in a moment.
It allows the reader to step into a character’s shoes, feel what they’re feeling and experience what they’re experiencing – to be in the scene with them. The result is a stronger, unique voice; an increase in pace through tension; and better immersion for the reader because they can easily picture what’s happening.
Remember, it’s how you make a reader feel that makes a story memorable.
Telling is distanced. It informs. It summarises.
Telling relates information at arms-length. It’s narration rather than scene. In third person POV, it’s the voice of the narrator, so it’s an outside perspective. In first person POV, it’s the voice of the character, so while it’s still distanced, it can carry a lot more colour and tone. However, neither leaves room for interpretation. Hence, the term information dump or exposition is often associated with writing that tells.
So when should you tell and when should you show?
It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Each technique has its place.
Telling is perfect for summarising when you want to move the story along quickly because nothing particularly important is happening except time passing. It’s less immersive for the reader, but it’s more efficient.
Examples where telling is necessary
Say, your character has just been involved in a high-drama scene, and now the action has slowed as they board a plane for a seven-hour flight. Nothing happens on the plane except people reading, watching movies, sleeping and snoring. Who wants to read two pages of that? Nobody. So, you summarise it:
Distanced narrator (third person):
Sarah boarded the plane, tired from the hike. She took a couple of sleeping pills and woke in New Orleans.
Character narrator (first person):
I boarded the plane, body aching from the ridiculously long hike. Damn, the seat was uncomfortable, but I managed to snooze on and off with a little chemical help, waking to the lights of a new city outside my window.
Example of telling vs showing a scene
But what if something important happens on the flight? Then you need scene. And that’s where showing comes into its own. Look at the difference between these two techniques.
Telling a scene
Sarah put her sweaty uniform jacket on the vacant seat next to hers. Although she was tired, she knew she was likely to get airsick, so decided to take a nausea tablet. However, she dropped the bottle, and it rolled into the aisle, stopping at the feet of her nemesis, Sergeant Cather. He made a derogatory remark that angered her, and she heard laughter from his mates behind him.
Removing the telling
Now we remove the telling parts, a lot of which involve filter words.
“she was tired”
“who made a derogatory remark”
“she was angry”
Showing the same scene
Sarah tossed her sweaty uniform jacket on the vacant seat next to hers. God, was that smell her? Sighing heavily, she dropped onto the barely padded vinyl seat. Great. Her butt was already sore enough. Eyes closed, she rubbed the tightness of her stomach, wondering if she could make it without her tablets this time. Probably not. Once the monster was triggered, there was no stopping it. After a moment, she took a pill bottle from her pocket and tried to flip the stiff plastic lid. “Damn.” The bottle slipped from her grasp and bounced to the floor, scattering white tablets as it rolled into the aisle. She sprung from her seat and onto her knees, the carpet scratchy under her blistered palms as she crawled. Just as she reached for the runaway bottle, it bumped up against a black shoe – a shiny black shoe, patent leather. She didn’t need to look up.
“Sarah … while you’re down there.”
Laughter came from behind him. His brown-nosed army mates.
He lifted his foot and placed it on top of the bottle. “Always thought you had a habit.”
Sarah pursed her lips, holding back the vitriol burning in her throat. There was no point answering the misogynistic excuse of a … “Get your foot off. They’re nausea tablets. Not that anything would stop the vomit you induce.”
Discerning the difference
See how the first version tells us what’s happening – tells us Sarah is tired, tells us she is upset – but doesn’t provide any space for the reader to interpret her actions or feel her mood?
While the second version allows us to sit next to Sarah on the plane and smell her sweat, feel her tiredness, the uncomfortable seat, the annoyance of dropping her pill bottle, the scratchy carpet under her hands. We’re given access to her interiority (thoughts), and we have space to interpret what her pills are for. We endure the shock of her seeing the shoe of someone she despises, the humiliation of being caught crawling, and her anger at his accusation of her being a drug addict. We even have a metaphor at play: the monster that is her nausea.
This demonstrates how showing can draw the reader in to a deeper level (immersion). They’re invited to let go of their everyday life and stepped into Sarah’s life. They’re permitted to experience first-hand all the intricacies of Sarah’s interiority and the impact of the setting on her senses – a much more engaging and effective way to write.
Let’s dive a little deeper.
Sensory details are essential to creating a rich picture of the character’s setting. By including the character’s experiences with smell, taste, sight, touch and sound, you help the reader visualise the setting clearly by engaging their imagination through sensory perception, and perhaps allowing them to draw upon their similar experiences, rather than have them struggle to create their own picture from a flat description.
Smell: He inhaled, wondering what the heavenly scent was. White jasmine?
Taste: Her lips puckered at she bit into the not-quite-ripe mandarin.
Sight: She squinted as a blaze of yellow and orange lit the horizon.
Touch: The cool of the drizzle eased the ache of his sunburned skin.
Sound: She unhunched her shoulders as the child’s wailing trailed off into a cadence of hiccups.
Let the reader feel it themselves
Rather than telling the reader what a character is feeling, if you allow the reader to interpret for themselves through the character’s thoughts, dialogue and actions, you force the reader to imagine those feelings within themselves, creating a bond, a relationship, with the character – a sense of empathy, if you like – allowing them to live vicariously through the character’s experiences and get lost in the story.
Telling: Sam filled with dread, anger and sadness as his father smashed his paintings.
Showing: Sam fell to his knees, pressing his trembling fists to his forehead, as his father smashed painting after painting.
Space builds trust
By providing space for the reader to interpret the subtext, you avoid heavy-handed exposition and, instead, allow the reader to figure things out for themselves. Nobody likes to be told what to think. By giving the reader space, you build a sense of trust between the reader and author. You’re saying, “I know you get what I’m saying here, without me having to spell it out for you. You’re a smart reader. I trust you, and you can trust me too.
Liz looked at the plate and grimaced. “I’m not eating that. Your cooking is awful.”
Eddie’s temper flared. “It’s that or nothing, you ingrate.”
Liz looked at the plate and grimaced. Eddie stared at her for a moment, then held up his middle finger.
Here’s a few more examples of show vs tell.
I’m sure you can come up with more beautiful or original ideas, but for ease of clarity, let’s keep it simple.
- Tell: He was so angry, he left.
- Show: He stormed out, slamming the door.
Action and dialogue:
- Tell: It was noisy and scary. She asked how long it would last.
- Show: She cringed at the noise of the wind tearing at the roof. “Do you think it will last much longer?”
Action & thought:
- Tell: I really wanted to buy the suit but didn’t have enough money.
- Show: I pulled out my wallet and checked my money. Not enough. Maybe if I gave up eating for the next week. Or month.