Easy fixes: telling and showing

You may have heard the phrase “show don’t tell.” It’s a subject that permeates all aspects of writing, and it is very important to understand.

What’s the difference?

Telling is explaining or summarizing something literally, which is common in non-fiction writing. For example,

Telling: William ate a sandwich.

Showing is detailing an event to deliver the experience to the reader including all of the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the characters. Showing almost always requires more words than telling. For example,

Showing: William picked up the BLT. His mouth filled with saliva as the smell of fresh sourdough reached his nose. With the first bite, the crunching bacon and lettuce brought him back his childhood, when his mother would cook bacon for breakfast on Sunday mornings.

Both of these examples communicate the idea of William eating a sandwich.  The first one summarizes with a quick, generic statement.  The second one dramatizes with specific, unique details.

Showing is important because it provides an experience for the reader and creates an emotional connection with the characters by allowing the reader to live in the character.  It also helps a reader visualize and imagine your story, which is crucial to keeping a reader engaged.

Audiences who grew up on TV and movies often expect 100% of the story to be shown to them, and not narrated to them (the scrolling text intro to Star Wars excluded).  In the last century, English literature has shifted to include much more showing rather than telling.

There is nothing wrong with telling, assuming you can tell it well.  Whole books have been written as essentially a story told by a narrator, with virtually no showing.

However, if you are writing contemporary fiction, the important parts of your book should usually be shown to the reader, not told, as this is what most readers have come to expect, and it is often easier to write interesting passages of “showing” versus interesting passages of “telling”. Be careful though—a book that is all showing, with no telling, can become tiresome to read.

When to show versus when to tell

On one end the the spectrum, you have pure telling. Phrases like “he drove his car to work” explain literally what happened, and can be very useful for summing up boring parts of a story quickly.

The other end of the spectrum is pure showing, where every bit of action is detailed extensively, revealing the experiences, thoughts, emotions, and actions of characters. Pure showing is useful for extremely dramatic scenes, such as a critical turning point in a story.

Most successful modern creative writing is primarily showing with a bit of telling mixed in.

The general guidelines are:

Tell when it’s boring and you need to get through something for the story to make sense, or when you want to fill in the reader on a backstory, a description, or a piece of information without taking the extra pages to fully dramatize it.

Don’t: Stan got in his car, turned the key, and warmed up the engine. Backing out of the driveway, he glanced in the rear-view mirror and sighed. It was another boring Monday. He turned onto Maplecrest Drive and headed for the freeway, just like every other day. He flipped through the radio station but nothing good was on. He pulled onto the freeway. After forty-five minutes in moderate traffic, he arrived in his usual parking spot, right on time. As Stan walked into the building, Jimmy bumped into him and spilled boiling coffee on Stan’s crotch.

Do: Stan drove to work. As Stan walked into the building, Jimmy bumped into him and spilled boiling coffee on Stan’s crotch.

Show when it’s interesting and you’re writing the good stuff.

Don’t: Billy stabbed his brother in the heart. The end.

Do: Billy raised the knife over his brother’s sleeping body. It was time to put an end to this damned werewolf curse, even if it meant the end of the family. Candlelight flickered off the silvered blade. Beads of sweat formed on Billy’s brow. He bit his lip and slammed the knife into Carl’s back, forcing the ten-inch blade between two ribs. Carl’s yellow eyes shot open and Billy stepped back from the older brother who had saved his life a dozen times or more. They locked eyes. Carl reached out to Billy for a moment, then slumped and lost consciousness. Billy took a deep breath. It was finally over.

Point of View considerations

Show versus tell is a nuanced decision. It will affect the tone of your writing, the pacing, and the style. Here is a quote from bestselling, award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin:

“Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented. … This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.”

One point here is that eliminating all telling from your story can lead to a story that reads like an action movie script (many Young Adult novels fall in this category).  Another observation is that there is a connection between point of view and showing versus telling.  Specifically:

The closer in to the character’s POV you are, the more you’ll likely be showing, and the less likely you’ll be telling. 

For example, if you are in a deep third person POV (the reader only sees what the character sees, and only knows what the characters knows), then it will be difficult to step back and “tell” parts of the story—for example, to fill in the background of a place or person that the character doesn’t know about.

For exploring places, this can lead to a “white box” story where settings aren’t described enough, and for people, it can generate tons of dialogue to get another (non-POV) character’s backstory out in the open.  Writing tight dialogue, switching POVs from scene to scene, and remembering to include all the POV character’s senses in the scene can help mitigate these problems for deep third person POV.

On the other end of the spectrum, a narratorial voice with an omniscient POV can alternate between telling (narrating the story to the reader) and showing (describing the action in detail through the eyes of a character or a as a fly on the wall).  This type of POV is more complex to write and to read, but done well it is transparent and and can be beautiful.  It can also create an intimate connection between the writer and the reader, as in many works by Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas, where the reader feels that the story is being told by a master storyteller who has a persona of their own.

Author Kim Stanley Robinson has a good essay in defense of telling in Wonderbook, a writing guide by Jeff VanderMeer. However, I personally have struggled with some dull exposition dumps (usually research dumps) in Robinson’s novels. Learning to write a story that includes significant amounts of telling without showing is an art form, and is likely best studied reading pre-1900 fiction.

Exposition and Info Dumps

The general rule: only include details that matter to the story. Weave them into the scenes and action, don’t just info-dump on the reader.

Info dumps can take many forms.  Some writers will spend pages detailing a character’s clothes.  Others will drone on about the scenery when a few well-chosen sentences would have been fine.  Frequently, writers will “research dump” and spend pages on a subject that they researched (or one that they are fond of) even when it doesn’t matter much to the story. If it is important, weave it in—don’t dump it.

There are exceptions to this rule, even whole books written in telling exposition, but unless you are particularly good at crafting interesting, well-written, and thought-provoking exposition, it’s better to stick to the story, rather than the research behind it.

Don’t: The Destroyer-class Hand Operated Plasma Cannon (HOPCAN) operated on 1.29 Gigawatts of energy, fueled primarily by a barium-ion nuclear fusion generator (contained in a gallium-carbide water jacket) as well as a radio-invisible solar cell array and an inverted plasma recycler.

Do: Dirk wrenched the plasma cannon out of the dead soldier’s hand. A peeling sticker read “Now with 1.29 Gigawatts!” Dirk grinned. It was time to melt some moon worms.

Info-dumps can also occur in dialogue:

Don’t: “As you know Susan, we’re all police detectives hunting a psycho killer who has been exploding expensive chihuahuas all over Beverly Hills for the last four years. Now that you’re our new boss, we’re all looking to you to lead our department and catch this guy once and for all.”

Likewise, info-dumps can occur in an internal monologue:

Don’t: Susan sipped her coffee. How was she supposed to catch a guy that these police detectives hadn’t caught for four years? Sure, they weren’t the best and the brightest, but still. And what kind of psycho killer would go around exploding chihuahuas all over Beverly Hills? Well, it was up to her to lead this rag-tag group of misfits to victory and rid the city of the puppy-popper. She was going to need a lot more coffee.

Both of the above examples dump information on the reader, explaining everything. Your reader is smart! Resist the urge to explain.

Do: Susan sipped her coffee as the sergeant fumbled through the ending of his slideshow. The puppy-popper. These numbnuts were pathetic. Crawford must have put her on this ridiculous assignment because of that joke she made at the Christmas party. She smirked. She’d catch this jerk and be back in her old desk in a week. That’d show him.

Again, you must resist the urge to explain or dumb things down for your readers. Readers are reading to find out what happens next and to unveil the characters and the world you have created. If you explain everything from the get-go, there’s no reason to read on. The reader should always have a question they are waiting for an answer to. If you answer a question, you must raise a new, bigger question immediately!

Don’t: Roxanne was a prostitute. She worked hard for the money, but her clients didn’t treat her right, nor pay her enough. She came from a broken home too. Her pimp, Upgrayedd, was coming by soon, and he would want his pimping money. She didn’t have it, so she was going to run away to her cousin’s in Canada and start a new life.

That’s all telling, and basically ruins the story. Do we really need to explain everything?

Do: Roxanne shuddered, partially shielded from the rain in a doorway. The bad weather kept business away, and tonight had been light. In the distance, the familiar blare of a novelty car horn playing La Cucaracha made her jump. Any other night, she would have taken it, but not tonight, not after what happened to Misty. She took off her heels and ran down the rainsoaked alley.

This passage, while not perfect, at least only hints at what Roxanne does for a living, and who is after her. Further, it raises the questions of what happened to Misty, where Roxanne is going to go, and who, exactly, is after her?

A final problem caused by info-dumps is proportionality. Is the amount of writing appropriate relative to the importance of the subject/character/theme etc. in the story?  Or is there too much detail on unimportant things and not enough on good stuff?

If you spend a lot of words on a subject in your writing, readers will assume it’s important.  For example, if you detail a character for a page, and then he never shows up again, it’s not only a waste of space, but likely to disappoint your reader.  This is related to the show-versus-tell decision—write the details for the important stuff, and minimize the unimportant stuff.

Cause and Effect

Cause should precede effect when you are showing action. When an event occurs, an emotional reaction or conscious thought follows, then a physical reaction or speech.

Don’t: Bob hit the brakes. In the headlight beam, a jackalope tried to cross the road. “Oh great,” Bob muttered. The jackalope thumped under Bob’s car. The hiss of a flat tire filled the warm summer night.

Do: In the headlight beam, a jackalope tried to cross the road. Bob hit the brakes. The jackalope thumped under Bob’s car. The hiss of a flat tire filled the warm summer night. “Oh great,” Bob muttered.

Linking verbs tend to tell

Linking verbs are the verbs “am is are was were be being been” and a few others (essentially, the conjugations of the verb “to be”). There’s nothing wrong with using them, but the overuse of them often leads to repetitive prose, passive voice, and telling rather than showing.

Make your verbs specific and interesting! Search your documents for “was were wasn’t weren’t” if you’re writing in the past tense. For present tense, search for “am is isn’t are aren’t” etc. In the example below, the verbs are highlighted.

Don’t: She was red-haired and slim. She was in her bedroom, and there were a dozen empty whiskey bottles there. There were no lights on, and the room was stuffy and smelly.

Do: Messy red hair fell around her narrow shoulders as she lay on her bedroom floor. A dozen empty whiskey bottles scattered the sty she called home. Shadows played across the filth, and the heavy musk of stale cheese pervaded the air.

There’s nothing wrong with using “to be” as the verb, but don’t make it the only verb you use.

Adverbs tend to tell

Adverbs are words that modify a verb. They often end in -ly. For example, “The dog bit his leg viciously.” and “He walked slowly to the hospital.”

By themselves, adverbs aren’t bad. They serve an important purpose in the English language. However, if you can swap out your verb + adverb into a more specific, dynamic verb, you should. Doing so will create a cleaner and more visceral story.

Don’t: “The dog bit his leg viciously.”
Do: “The dog ripped into his leg.”

Don’t: “He walked slowly to the hospital.”
Do: “He limped to the hospital.”

Particularly, adverbs that follow “said” shouldn’t be necessary: the dialogue that you’re writing (and any accompanying actions) should show the emotion and leave no need for an adverb.

Don’t: “I can’t believe you slept with her,” she said angrily.
Do: “You cheating bastard. I hate your goddamn guts,” she said.
Do: She threw the panties in his face. “You cheating bastard.”

Note that there are a few exceptions for adverbs that actually modify said (change the way someone says something), such as “softly” or “slowly.”

Similar to adverbs, the same goes for most verbs other than “said”—they are usually telling when you should be showing, or at worst, they are ridiculous.

Don’t: “You never have time for me,” he replied/countered/announced/etc.
No need for the weird verb. The fact that he’s replying is obvious.
Do: “You never have time for me,” he said.
Do: He shrugged. “You never have time for me.”

Don’t: “I guess I killed him,” she snarled/growled/barked/groaned/etc.
No need for the weird verb. Make her dialogue or action show the emotion.
Do: “Yeah. I killed him. He deserved worse,” she said.
Do: She glowered at the prosecutor. “Yeah. I did it. So what if I did?”

Don’t: “Everything will be OK,” the priest consoled/reminded/soothed/etc.
The consolation is obvious from the dialogue, no need for the weird verb.
Do: “Everything will be OK,” the priest said.
Do: The priest patted her hand. “I asked the governor for a stay on the execution. He’s had an unfaithful wife, and I think he may understand.
No need to console twice – the hand pat is enough to communicate the consolation to the reader. We can move on with the plot.