Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Show vs. Tell Part II: Small Ways to Show, and When to Tell

After Monday’s post, Part I of Show vs. Tell, I received a handful of comments and emails insisting, doesn’t Tell also have a place? You can’t possibly always show, right?

I totally agree.

And honestly, perhaps I was too hard on Telling. Telling has feelings too.

Because this is such an important, ongoing conversation, I want to clarify a few things about Showing before I talk about the merits of Telling. Apologies in advance for rambling and tons of examples.:)

First and foremost, while my last post gave examples and focused on how important Showing was, I forgot to stress the most important thing.

Showing isn’t always the answer. It is the preferred solution, yes, but only when it has a purpose.

Like when developing important characters, world building or moving the plot forward. Those are the times you can hold the delete key down on the telling and pump up the showing. But no, there is certainly no need to show every nuance, thought, action, character, setting and idea in your novel in show-worthy detail.

It’s only for the stuff that truly matters to the central story, plot and characters that we need to see and feel and be a part of it. For the rest, a bit of telling is okay. *more on that below.*

Secondly, Showing doesn’t always mean saying more.

My last post covered many ways of showing that flesh out a scene, make it longer, and add tons of story in order to show, but that isn't the only way it can work. Sure there is a huge place in our stories for that type of showing, but it isn't the only way.

This seems to be a big misconception I see and hear all over the place. Showing over telling does not mean you are going to end up with a 200,000 word novel. On the contrary, sometimes it just means saying it in a different way, or by omitting or rearranging.

I gave some big examples in the last post that may have scared readers into thinking every three line paragraph had to become an illustrative pages-long scene. No, no, no. Not the case at all. Sometimes showing is much simpler than that.

For example, in dialogue.


“Why can’t you just drop it?” She said angrily. (telling)


“Why can’t you just drop it?” She slammed her notebook on the table. (showing)

“Why can’t you just drop it?” She scowled. (showing)

“Why can’t you just drop it?” She huffed. (showing)

How simple it is to show the girl being angry rather than saying “said angrily.” (besides which, “said angrily” is just so ugly.) *Also, disclaimer, although the above dialogue tags show better than tell, those types of tags should be used in moderation. A manuscript full of any type of dialogue tags, showing or not, will drive any reader crazy*

Saying it another way

Sometimes just changing the words used shows instead of tells.


They came down the stairs wearing their angriest expressions, the ones tinged with emotion. (telling)


When she came downstairs, Mom’s face was red, her cheeks tear-stained. Dad stomped behind her, obviously in the same foul mood. (showing)


Such as striking big blocks of backstory. Small example below:

I was so upset about breaking up with Frank, I knew I had to talk to my brother. Eric was two years older than me but we were super close. I always told him everything and he’d always done so much for me. He stood up for me when I got picked on at school and he always sided with me when I had fights with mom and dad. He was mom’s favorite and he always got her to give in when I wanted to do something I wasn’t normally allowed to, like go to the movies with my friends. When Grandpa died, it was Eric that held me while I cried.

Okay, that’s obviously long, boring and full of info the reader doesn’t need. It may be good info for the writer to have for character profiles, etc., but it’s the kind of backstory that clogs up a draft. I’d kill the whole thing. Some of the memories/examples are good, so one or two can be worked in at a later time if needed. For now, say it was changed to something like:

I walked into Eric’s room without knocking. He was hunched over his desk doing homework.

“Got a minute?” My voice still trembled with the hurt of Frank dumping me.

“For you? Of course.” Eric smiled and patted the chair next to his. I felt a million times better, like always with my big brother.

See, it's no longer than the original, but keeps the reader engaged and in the moment, rather than the laundry list with no action.

Sometimes, if you just tell the story, slow down and show what’s happening, it will be organic, natural. Let it just… happen, in a realistic way. People don’t walk around thinking about things like that paragraph above. If you’re close to your brother, you interact with him and feel good, you don’t walk around thinking of all the reasons you love him and everything he's ever done for you.

In my last post, I used the example of the boy and girl in class. Apologies for using it again in this post, but to illustrate the point of rearranging, it works.

This first paragraph was omitted:

While waiting for Spanish to start, I turned to Dana. She looked good, sitting there in her black jeans and tee shirt and I thought about that first day we’d hooked up last winter. Six months later, our relationship was still going strong.

The rearranged version:

I shrugged. “You know, I don’t know why she’s agreed to let Leon take the majority of the year book pictures. He’s not even good.”

Dana rolled her eyes. “He is good. And you know it.”
“Give me a break, D.” I shook my head and held back what I really wanted to say.

She raised her eyebrows. “Jealous much?”

“Jealous? Are you even serious? Of that loser?”

“Sounds like jealousy to me.” With that flip of her hair and the sarcastic lilt in her voice, I could have screamed.

“Besides,” she whispered with a sly smile. “You take good pictures, too.”

I laughed louder than I meant to, remembering that winter day in Central Park, how it had started with photos of snowy landmarks and ended with us kissing in Strawberry Fields, the snow practically melting around us. Things hadn’t cooled off much between us since.

Through omitting the first paragraph, and rearranging, by moving his memory of the first kiss to the end of the conversation and giving it a bit more detail, it showed more of what was happening between them. Letting the reader see them interact and react to the memory carries more weight than just being told about the memory upfront in the omitted paragraph.

Those small examples are ways that show how you can use small changes in a big way to Show rather than Tell. Dialogue, omitting, rearranging and simply saying it another way can all work to the story’s advantage without adding tons of words.

Maybe if it was called Show, don’t Explain, it would be easier to understand. Over explaining seems an easier concept than telling, no?

But okay, this was supposed to be a post in Defense of Telling and I’ve spent all this time talking about showing (again).

Anyway, here we go, when Telling is the way to go.

Telling is okay!

The caveat here is that, like showing – and anything else in writing – there are a million possibilities that can and will work. I am merely outlining a very few that come to mind to illustrate the point.

When characters aren’t important.

Telling is fine when you are referring to or mentioning a character that doesn’t play into the central story or plot and isn't a main or supporting character. If they’re going to show up often and/or matter to the mc and plot, we need to see them at least somewhat in action. But for throwaway characters, etc., why not tell?


Justin leaned against the cafeteria doorway, talking to Tina. I swallowed around my turkey sandwich, which had lodged itself in my throat. Tina was the known class slut, and she was mean to all the girls in our grade. She had no friends, except those she’d slept with. My boyfriend, ex or not, had no place talking to her.

Did I do a whole lot of telling about Tina? Sure. Does it matter? No. She’s unimportant. I don’t need to see her sleeping around and being mean. Sometimes, it’s best to leave well enough alone.

Passage of time

This is a big one where telling is more than okay. No one wants to know every second of every day. If the guy and girl have an important conversation before school, and she’s waiting to finish it during lunch, the reader does not need the rest of the morning spelled out.

Something telling like:
My morning classes flew and I didn’t register a thing my teachers said.

I was so distracted all morning. Every class was a blur. My friends looked at me funny and my teachers seemed unhappy, but I couldn’t pay attention. I couldn’t wait for lunch.

These things are telling, but it’s okay, it’s fine. I don’t need to go through each class and see her zoned out and ignoring people. Who cares? Telling is fine.

Bigger passages of time/recap of events/time passed

It’s always awkward to write those in between scenes that cover a lot of ground, time-wise, but telling usually does the trick nicely.


By the time Friday rolled around, I was a wreck. I’d gotten through the entire week without anyone else finding out about me and Trent or the pregnancy. In the week that had passed since we decided to have the baby, the idea had started to settle into me, burrowing in somewhere, making itself at home. I still felt sick when I smelled anything other than bread or popcorn, but I hadn’t thrown up since that one time in Nadine’s car. Thank God.

Trent had hardly spoken to me, our group work and presentation in English the only time we were physically close enough to give me hope, or at least the satisfaction of having my sleeve brush up against his. I hadn’t contacted him once though. I was giving him his space, but it was hard. I wondered how long he would take to come around, and I ignored the part of me that said it might never happen.

I do a lot of telling here. A whole lot. I cover a week’s time, I talk about how the MC has accepted her pregnancy, how she feels, how she and love interest don’t talk. I even recap/gloss over their class together and the little contact they have. But it works, partly because spelling those things out would slow the story down and not add anything additional in terms of character development or moving the plot forward.

This one can go either way. I’ve read many novels lately where authors are amazingly deft at working in memories to build great characters and emotions through them. It can be a really successful tool to bring in the past and show the reader a lot. That said, I think a bit of telling in memories can be okay too. To use the same example from my first post (yes, the same one I reused above, I know, you’re sick of it by now), some telling is okay.

When their conversation ends with this:

I laughed louder than I meant to, remembering that winter day in Central Park, how it had started with photos of snowy landmarks and ended with us kissing in Strawberry Fields, the snow practically melting around us. Things hadn’t cooled off much between us since.

When he has the memory that tells about their relationship, it does just that – it tells. And that’s okay. Their reaction to the memory showed enough about them, that spelling it out wouldn’t have done any more for their development or the plot. Actually, it would have most likely slowed the scene down considerably considering it was a just a momentary memory.

Wrapping it up, finally!
Bottom line: There are times telling works and times it doesn’t. I know, I know, that’s not exactly helpful advice, but as with everything in this business, it is so subjective and so individualized on a case by case basis. It truly is one of those, "you know it when you see it" things, which I know is so damn aggravating, but true, nonetheless!

It’s one more reason how practice makes perfect. Writing, critiquing and reading trump everything when it comes to understanding these concepts. Beta reading/critiquing is probably the single most effective way I’ve been able to identify my own weaknesses. Having others point them out, of course, shows me, but reading others’ work with a critical eye has also trained me how to read my own manuscripts critically.

And writing. Write, write, write, a million times write. It will only get easier and you will only get better. Only through practice can we grasp the idea of what can stay and what can go, where it’s okay to tell and where you need to show. It’s a never-ending lesson that we’re all undertaking, but hopefully, someday, we’ll graduate with some type of knowledge and understanding.

*If anyone has anything to add, circumstances I’m missing, further examples, etc., please post in the comments and I’ll add to the post. Thanks.:)
Link to Part I of the Show vs. Tell discussion.


  1. I love finding great telling in a story. If it's done right that sometimes draws me in more than showing. I think showing the whole scene creates more words. But you're right, the small examples of showing emotion are what doesn't take up much room.

  2. More wonderful examples - great post, Jenn! Definitely finding the right balance can only be done through lots of reading and writing.

  3. Great post, Jenn! I particularly liked your suggestion to call it "explaining" rather than "showing."

    It's interesting. I'm rereading some books by authors I adore and one of them has such a different voice. She does a lot of showing; there's always an awareness of dynamics between people and it's presented as synthesized, rather than at the level of felt experience. The result is an emotionally less intense book, but still a successful one, IMHO. The reason is a wonderful voice and an optimistic world view. Without that, though, I suspect her fiction wouldn't have caught on.

    Anyway, lots to consider. Thanks.

  4. Great post! I'm bookmarking this one. =)


  5. This is probably one of the best posts on showing and telling that I've read. Great job!

  6. Great post, Jenn. I particularly liked the examples of when telling IS appropriate. It does serve a purpose, and this was a great reminder. :)

  7. I think you definitely covered all the bases, Jenn. Thanks for this. :)