“Show, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Always Apply: Here’s What You Need to Know

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If you’ve been in any writing groups, read any writing books or blogs, or hung out in any writing-related forums online … you’ve probably come across these three words of advice:

“Show, don’t tell.”

It’s a very commonly quoted writing “rule”. There’s enough truth in it that I wouldn’t call it bad advice – for that, check out my posts Four Dangerous Pieces of Advice for Writers and Four More Dangerous Pieces of Advice for (Fiction) Writers.

However … it’s not a rule you need to stick to all of the time.

Plus, even when “show, don’t tell” does apply, it can be tricky to be sure exactly what’s meant by it. Where’s the line between “telling” and “showing”?

Here are a couple of examples:

Telling:

Michael was angry with Sarah, and sulked all day.

Showing:

Sarah asked, tentatively, “Shall we get a Chinese or Mexican tonight?”

“Do whatever you want,” Michael said, “like you always do.”

He stamped off up the stairs, and didn’t speak to her for the rest of the afternoon.

 

The second example is much more vivid. We see how Michael behaves when he’s angry; we hear the characters speak to one another.

It’s also much longer – and this is often the case for showing versus telling. Sometimes, you can show readers something with a single well-chosen detail – but often you’ll need to expand a highly condensed bit of “telling” into more of a scene.

When You Should Tell, Not Show

All stories will involve some degree of “telling” … and there’s not always a clear dividing line between “telling” and “showing”.

For instance, here’s a line from the opening of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

The (unnamed) narrator is telling us about John, rather than showing us what he’s like (though we quickly do see him in action). But through this telling, we are also shown something of the narrator – how, perhaps, she is someone who does not consider herself “practical in the extreme”, and who might have more time for faith and superstition and the non-material world than her husband does.

There are certain times when you’ll definitely want to use “telling”. For instance:

  • When moving quickly past a boring period of time in the story, where the details of what happened during that time are unimportant. E.g. “John and Sarah arrived at the holiday cottage just as the sun was setting.”
  • When you’re explaining something that the reader needs to know (e.g. how succession to the throne works in your fantasy society). This can be done deftly or badly; often, though, a simple sentence or two telling us can work better than laboured paragraphs where you show
  • When you want to keep the story moving along quickly. There’s nothing wrong with introducing a character quickly by telling us that they’re “tall” or “chubby” or “rake-thin”. (Jerry Jenkins suggests showing us that a character is tall by having others look up to talk to him, or having him duck to go through a doorway. You could do that, but to be honest, if another character’s first impression of him is that he’s tall, I don’t see any problem with sharing that.)

What if You Do Have Too Much Telling?

If you feel that you do tend to tell the reader too much when you should be showing them, think about how you could dramatise or demonstrate what you want to tell us.

For instance, if a character is excited, you might show us how they behave. Do they speak more quickly or loudly than usual? Do they clap their hands in glee? Do they jump up and down?

Any time you have reported dialogue – a common type of telling – ask yourself whether it would be better if you showed the conversation taking place. Sometimes, it wouldn’t: the conversation is boring or relatively unimportant to the story (probably, the outcome is the only thing that matters).

When you’re reading, you can also keep an eye out for times where authors show something rather than simply telling you.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the prologue of Stuart Neville’s Those We Left Behind that demonstrate how showing can be used to effectively and fairly quickly cue the reader in:

The mattress rocks. Warm air finds the tiny hairs on the back of Ciaran’s neck and waves them like the grass on the dunes, back when they were little, and things weren’t so hard and angry. A bare arm slips around his waist, the hand taking his. The chest against his back, all warm and cuddly, bony knees tucked behind his.

Ciaran sees the red points of blood on their wrists. Join the dots. Make a picture.

We don’t need to be told that Ciaran is young and vulnerable. We get this through words like “cuddly” and “join the dots” and “make a picture”. (We later learn that he’s 12, at the time of the prologue.)

We also don’t need to be explicitly told that there’s someone else lying on the bed with him. We see the bare arm slip around his waist, the chest and knees against his back, and we have the reference to “their wrists”.

 

How do you feel about “show, don’t tell”? Is it a rule you’ve found useful – or one that you think is too prescriptive? I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments.

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

6 thoughts on ““Show, Don’t Tell” Doesn’t Always Apply: Here’s What You Need to Know

  1. I remember the experience that helped me understand what “show, don’t tell” really means. Up until then, I’d seen it all over the internet. It was on every writing blog. Even WordPress’s Daily Post blog mentions it a few times—and if WordPress, one of the most successful blogging platforms, considers it worth mentioning, I figured it was probably important. The example they used was Anton Chekhov’s quote: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” It didn’t help at all—I didn’t see how a shining moon wasn’t showing, and the glint of light on broken glass wasn’t telling. It all seemed the same to me.

    But then I was in Arizona on college tours with my parents, and I was writing in our hotel room, as always…and I asked my dad to read a passage. It was a section of dialogue between my two main characters, and I was trying to portray one of them as inquisitive, bold, tactless, and selfish, and the other as troubled with a long and painful past. I asked my dad if it was apparent that the latter of the two was closing off in his dialogue. My dad said he wasn’t seeing that at all.

    So I asked, “Should I just have (character 1) make the observation that he seemed to be closing off, so maybe a different conversational tactic is in order?”

    And my dad replied, “No, I think you should have (character 2) act *more* closed off.”

    That’s when it hit me. And instead of having Character 1 just tell us that Character 2 had closed off, when really that wasn’t obvious, I had Character 2’s lines taper off until he was basically snapping at her and then finally say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” which actually became his trademark line. The funny thing is, I *still* don’t get Chekhov’s quote, though I do understand what’s meant by it.
    Emma’s last blog post ..How Lightning Strikes

    • I think your dad was spot-on. 🙂

      I know what you mean about that Chekhov quote. I’m not sure it’s really an example of showing vs telling, but more of an example that little details can say a lot. (Also important, but a different thing, in my view!)

      Plus, “The moon was shining” could easily be an example of showing, if it’s being used as an alternative for “It was night time”…

      • You know, that actually makes a lot of sense. I thought I was just misunderstanding a commonly understood phrase, as is common in my family (my dad cannot for the life of him understand why you “can’t compare apples and oranges”), but I think I’ll just go with that.
        Emma’s last blog post ..Star Luminosity Classes

        • I can see where your dad’s coming from, I guess!

          I’ve never liked the phrase “the exception proves the rule” because it doesn’t make sense at face value! I’ve heard it explained as “the exception TESTS the rule” and/or “the exception proves that a rule must exist”…

          • That doesn’t make any sense. It’s a logical fallacy. You can’t explain “the exception proves the rule” by rewriting it as a different expression. Testing and proving something are different things—in the scientific method, all hypotheses get tested, but that does not mean they are all proven. Also, how does the existence of an exception prove that a rule must exist? That’s only true if you already know something is an exception, but then you already know there’s a “rule” because you labeled that thing as an exception. If you’re just looking at a random occurrence that is not yet considered an exception or a rule, it has no bearing on whether or not it’s a common occurrence. And even if that did make sense…proving that a rule exists is not the same thing as proving *what* the rule is, which is what’s meant by “the exception proves the rule”!

            Didn’t mean to go on a rant, there, but I hope I’ve conveyed my point. I’ve never actually heard that phrase before but it makes no sense to me, either, and I don’t see how it can make sense at all.

            As far as my dad’s misunderstanding of comparing apples and oranges, he argues that of course you can compare them—they’re both fruits, they both have a stem, they both have a skin, they both have seeds, they both can make juice, etc…
            Emma’s last blog post ..Visual Binary Stars

            • It is definitely a weird phrase! I don’t seem to hear it much these days so I wonder if it’s dying out anyway?

              I think my dad would probably get on well with your dad… 😀

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