Fundamentals: 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. The smell of fresh sourdough reached his nose and his stomach rumbled. With the first bite, the crunching bacon and lettuce brought him back his childhood, when his mother would fry scrapple for Sunday mornings before church. You can’t praise the lord on an empty stomach, she’d say.

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. In some cases that narrator is even a character within the book, such as in Moby Dick or Lord Jim.

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. You could skip over ten years with one line of telling, or have a whole book that spanned five minutes, but covered everything in extreme detail.

The general guidelines are:

Tell (summarize) 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, and 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. He walked up the steps, and as he reached to pulled open the heavy oak door, it flew towards him, knocking him down and there were papers and coffee and pain that shocked through his genitals like fire and ice. Someone was on top of him, Jimmy, that new intern, trying to dry the coffee with his shirttails and only mashing the boiling liquid in deeper.

Show (dramatize) 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 Carl’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. Come on, man. Do it. Do it! Beads of sweat formed on Billy’s brow. It had to be now, it had to be tonight, before Carl took someone else. Do it!

Billy bit his lip and slammed the knife into Carl’s back, forcing the ten-inch blade between two ribs and twisting the tip into Carl’s heart. Carl’s yellow eyes shot open and Billy let go of the handle and stepped back, staring into the animal eyes of the older brother who had saved his life a dozen times or more.

Carl reached out to Billy for a moment, then slumped against the nightstand. 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 are like this). 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 or first-person POV (the reader only sees what the character sees, and only knows what the character 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.

A deep POV can lead to a “white box” story where settings aren’t described enough, it can cause lengthy conversations to get another (non-POV) character’s backstory out in the open, and it can lead to a story that gives its reader no room to pause (lack of sequels after scenes).

You can avoid these “over-showing” problems within deep POV by writing tight dialogue, switching POVs from scene to scene, using “telling” within the deep POV (e.g. “John told me about the strained relationship with his father” to summarize it instead of dramatizing it with a page of dialogue), and remembering to include all the POV character’s senses in the scene.

On the other end of the spectrum, a narratorial voice with an omniscient POV can alternate freely between telling (narrating/summarizing the story to the reader) and showing (dramatizing 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, and are one of the most common over-uses of “telling.” 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. Some will have a “prologue” chapter that is essentially a line-by-line history of the story world. Sometimes, 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 the information you want to convey 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.

Don’t: Faldruun was founded in 435 by King Griupl, who was then succeeded by his son King Griupl II, who was murdered by the usurper Hurea Euwoeneo in the year 498 … blah blah blah and a 40 page “prologue” that’s really just worldbuilding notes.

Do: Hurwitz pushed his way through the overgrown cemetery, and stopped at the crumbling statue of Hurea Euwoeneo, the Usurper. The Griupl clan had a sense of humor at least, having made the statue of Hurea exactly as he had died—hung by the neck.

Hurwitz set the tattered grimoire on a nearby headstone and cracked his knuckles. It was time for another usurpation, and there was only one man for the job, even if he’d been dead for a hundred years. Hurwitz unwrapped his shovel and began to dig.

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. That is, every book is a mystery. 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 in the dank doorway. The rain kept business away, and tonight had been light. She listened to the patter of rain until 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 had 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. 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.

These are sometimes called “motivation-reaction units” or MRUs, where you have a motivation (jackalope crossing the road), and a multi-stage reaction (action, thought, then speech).

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 the verb “said” (by changing the way someone speaks words with their mouth), 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. at the prosecutor.
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.

Vagaries tend to tell

One of the most important parts of showing being specific. This means avoiding vague, generic statements and using concrete details.

This advice may seem at odds with resist the urge to explain. Being specific is about zooming in on details (and moreso as you point-of-view gets deeper). Resisting the urge to explain is about not dumping backstory, research, and outline notes on the reader.

Don’t: Sheila glanced at the woman at the end of the hotel bar. She was beautiful, with gorgeous hair and a perfect body.
That’s not very specific: it could be anyone at that bar. Let’s zoom in and show what she looks like, and how the point-of-view character responds.
Do: Sheila glanced at the woman at the end of the hotel bar. She was short, a bit heavyset but very curvy, and her curly black hair nearly fell just far enough to brush her caramel shoulders and the top of her strapless, pale green dress. Sheila had to know her name—and get her room number.

Don’t: Her bedroom was quaint and charming, and outside the window was the forest.
That’s nice, but it doesn’t bring the scene to life and help the reader hallucinate the details.
Do: Her bedroom was packed with hand-me-down, roughsawn furniture, each covered in patchwork quilts, throws, and threadbare pillows. Three worn-out rugs were piled on the floor, barely enough to prevent splinters from the weathered floorboards, and the plaster walls were spattered with dried flower arrangements, pages from water-stained books, and bundles of hawk feathers. A pile of old birds nests filled the only windowsill, which looked out onto the dark pines of the Blackmire Wood.

Note that as with all showing, being specific must be subject to proportionality. If you go on for a page about this person’s room, and then it doesn’t matter for the plot and doesn’t reveal details about an important character, then you wasted a page.

Cliches tend to tell

Cliches are phrases that are overused. There are many types of cliches, including:

  • Sayings and idioms like “It’s raining cats and dogs”
  • Common ways to describe emotions, like “clenched fists” for anger
  • Descriptions, like “jade green eyes” or “bustling market”
  • Metaphors, like “love is war” or “cold feet”
  • Similes, like “dumb as a post” or “sharp as a tack”

Cliches became popular because they are shortcuts to get a point across to the reader (also known as synecdoches). The problem is that when you shortcut, you’re typically telling the story (summarizing it) rather than showing it (dramatizing it).

Most of the above issues and examples can be viewed as shortcuts as well (e.g. using “she said angrily” is a shortcut for showing her anger through dialogue and actions, or using “beautiful” instead of describing what something looks like).

Don’t: John thumbed through the affidavit. This case was going to be an uphill battle. But he couldn’t get down in the dumps. He would need to be tough as nails, strong as an ox, and stubborn as a mule if he was going to win this hands down. No pain, no gain. He set his jaw, clenched his fists, and barged into the courtroom.

Oof, that’s a lot of cliches. Let’s see if we can get the same idea across with something more relevant to the story and characters, while creating a visual scene for the reader to imagine.

Do: A single sweat drop rolled off John’s nose and splatted on the affidavit. He’d missed this one, and now it was too late to follow up on it, too late to do anything—the trial started in twenty minutes, and this document would put his client in the hole for life. He set the paper on top of the case file and wiped his face with the palms of both hands. If he faked stomach flu, maybe he could get a few days.

He looked down and next to the leg of the chair, in the shadow of his old oak desk, he caught the tip of his brown oxford shoe, the ones grandpop gave him. They’d been a bit loose until he put inserts in them, and even then he had to wear thick socks, but he always wore them for good luck on court days. What would grandpop have done with this? What would he say to him now?

John sighed. “He’s say, grab ’em by the balls and then twist like a bitch. And that’s what I’ve gotta do.” He grabbed the case file, cinched up his tie, and headed for the courtroom.

Showing Emotion

After reading all that, you’re probably getting the idea. Showing is about being specific, and not just taking shortcuts (which come in many forms!). Showing is all about helping your reader visualize the story in their head while they read, which is what makes reading fun. If you keep that in mind—that you’re writing to help your reader hallucinate your story—you’ll do well.

That’s all well and good for showing settings, characters, and actions, which can be seen/heard/smelt/felt by real people, but what about showing inner things like what a character is thinking or feeling? These aren’t detectable by the five senses—how do we convey them to the reader?

Whole books have been written on this subject, but it’s actually very simple. Emotions and inner thoughts can be communicated to the reader on a show-tell spectrum too! Just like with the senses, sometimes you want to tell it straight to get the point across, especially as you get into lower-reading level audiences, like pulp commercial fiction, young adult, and middle grade. For example, most Dan Brown books are packed with phrases like, “he said thoughtfully” or “She was furious.” or “I’ll get you for this!”

However, most of the time it’s better to show emotions with a bit more subtlety than with adverbs or direct statements of fact. You can still hammer the point home, but with a few taps of a jeweler’s hammer instead of a whack with a twenty-pound sledge. The most common approach is to use action beats combined with your PoV character’s inner thoughts to assess and summarize the thoughts of the other, mystery character. We may not have access to Chuck’s mind here, but we do have access to Bob’s:

Chuck sipped his beer. “But what happened to the diamonds, Bob?”
Bob glanced at his own empty glass. His mouth was dry as toast and he needed to pee. Chuck was going to go ballistic when he told him. Hopefully he wouldn’t piss his pants.
Chuck set his glass down hard, shaking the table and nearly sloshing his beer. “The diamonds, Bob. You didn’t rip me off, did you?
“The police horse ate them,” Bob said. “I swear. I swear! We just gotta get them out somehow.”

So we know that Chuck is mad due to Bob’s thoughts, and from Chuck slamming his glass down, and from Chuck’s dialogue lines. Chuck is mad, three times. We also know from Bob’s thoughts and dialogue that he is feeling scared and nervous. Using the PoV character’s perceptions along with little actions (slamming the glass) is easy and it’s the bread and butter of showing emotion in fiction writing.

Now let’s assume that this isn’t good enough for you—you want to be even more subtle in how you show emotions, never stating them outright as above (“going ballistic”), and not giving away too much (we did show Chuck’s anger three different ways, after all). Maybe you’re writing for an erudite audience, or maybe you’re writing a cinematic or omniscient PoV and you don’t have access to character thoughts. Or maybe your PoV character just isn’t much of an empath or isn’t very observant!

The key is subtlety is to focus on those action beats and use roundabout dialogue. What a character looks at, touches, or talks about often betrays what they’re thinking about, or is related to what they’re thinking about. People often won’t talk about what a conversation is actually about, but instead will talk around it.

“I don’t see why you can’t do something about it,” Ron said. “This is going to ruin me. And you.”
Charlene fingered the cross pendant on her neck. “They said they don’t have any open appointments in time.”
Ron wiped his hands on his napkin, and his gaze fell upon his bloody steak knife that the waiter had forgotten to collect. “Maybe there’s something else we can try.”

Now we don’t name emotions here, and we are heavily resisting the urge to explain, but it’s clear from first line that Ron is only thinking about himself. The cross tells us that Charlene isn’t going to have the abortion because of her Christian beliefs, not because of any actual issue at the clinic. Finally, the last line implies that Ron wants to wash his hands of this matter and is thinking of either murdering her or sending her to a back-alley abortion clinic. Rather dark, and maybe a bit over the top, but you get the idea.

If you want to dig deeper on emotion, there are books like The Emotional Craft of Fiction, which is heavy treatise on all this stuff and pretty heady. Another way to study emotion is to watch videos and read materials about how to spot emotional tells. For example, this TED talk on how to spot a liar or the many videos on how to read body language. Then, take that knowledge and use it to study people you interact with, or talented actors in movies, and see what works and what doesn’t.

You should also take a look at some of your favorite books and favorite scenes that have high emotional content and study how they’re written. You will probably find that they primarily use point-of-view interpretations and little action beats to show/imply emotions, and then set the mood with the particular, specific words they use to show the setting, characters, and actions.

For example, a group of trees can tower, it can loom, it can invite, it can bask in the sun. What specific words you choose for your showing can have a big impact on the emotional reaction of the reader as well, and should sync up with (or perhaps directly oppose) the emotions you are conveying in your characters (whether you choose symmetry or balance between setting and character emotions is up to you). The same is true about your choice of metaphors, similes, and other comparisons.

There you go, that’s all I know (at the moment) about show and tell. Hopefully you know a lot more than you did when you started too!