Understanding the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule

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Image from Flickr by Pink Sherbet Photography

One of the most common pieces of advice given out by writing teachers is show, don’t tell.

It’s a neat little phrase. But you might wonder what exactly it means, and why it matters. After all, you’re telling a story … is that so bad?

I’m going to take you through a few examples of telling versus showing in writing, and also look at some instances where appropriate to tell instead of showing.

Let’s get started with the main problem with telling:

Telling is Usually Too Abstract

When you tell the reader something, it can come across as rather flat. You’re giving them information – and that often stops the story in its tracks.

Here are some examples of telling:

#1: John was always impatient with his children.

#2: The house was run-down and dirty.

#3: Tina felt like her life was going nowhere.

Does the reader care that John is impatient with his children? Do they really get a picture of the house? Do they empathise with Tina?

Probably not. So what can we do differently in the writing?

#1: John grabbed the doll that was lying on the sofa and thrust it into his daughter’s hands. “Can’t you ever pick up your toys?”

#2: The flowers in the front garden were long dead, and paint was flaking from the window-frames. As Sarah pushed open the front door, a musty smell hit her. There were patches of damp mould creeping up the walls. She almost slammed the door shut again in disgust.

#3: Work was deathly dull, so Tina browsed Facebook; it didn’t make her feel any better. One friend from school had just been promoted to managing director; another had got engaged. All she had, five years out of college, was a cat, a tiny rented apartment, and twenty thousand dollars of debt.

None of these are necessarily great prose … but I hope they’re a bit more engaging than the “telling” versions.

You’ll notice that:

  • “Showing” can take much longer. It may take a whole page to show the reader something that you could tell them in a few sentences. (Think of summarising a movie or book to a friend: it doesn’t take long to cover the bare bones of what happened. But writing a story is about bringing those bones to life.)
  • “Showing” brings in character, sometimes in quite subtle ways. John isn’t just impatient, there’s also a hint of violence (look at the verbs “grabbed” and “thrust” – imagine substituting “picked up” and “put”).
  • “Showing” means giving details. You don’t need to describe everything, of course; the reader will infer other details from what’s been given. In the third example, we don’t need to have details of all Tina’s friends – two examples help give us the general impression: Tina sees her friends as successful, and compares herself unfavourably with them.

How to Show not Tell

When I come across something in my work that I’m tempted to simply tell, I ask myself how I can “make a scene of it” and whether that would be more effective.

Making a scene of it means:

  • Using dialogue. This can be a great way to show aspects of character – if someone’s impatient, rude, or simply lacks social graces, this can come out in dialogue. If you’ve got a character who’s manipulative or a liar, you can show this in dialogue by writing from their point of view, showing their actual thoughts alongside what they’re saying.
  • Using description. Although this might involve some level of telling (“the house was a 1960s semi”), you’re giving concrete details that let the reader build up a picture of the scene. Description can also help show character, both in the person who’s being described, or having their possessions described (someone whose house is unusually tidy or messy, for instance) and in the person doing the describing (through the details they pick up on and how they pass judgement on those).
  • Using narrative. This is a story; stuff needs to happen. The actions and reactions of your characters can reveal a lot about them and about the world they live in. If you’re writing a dystopian sci-fi novel, you don’t need to tell us “The whole country was under a repressive regime” – you can show us a woman hurrying home before curfew, or a man glancing around nervously before lowering his voice to make a fairly innocuous anti-government remark.

Sometimes, your choice of narrator means that you need to show things and trust the reader to understand. Emma Donoghue’s Room is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy. It starts with:

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.

We’re not told where exactly he and his mother are, and why, but details slowly come out. Even from this first sentence, the reader’s going to have questions; why is the boy sleeping in the wardrobe and waking up in the bed? Why are Wardrobe and Bed (and, reading on, the rest of the items in the room) all capitalised? As the reader continues, it becomes clear that there’s something very wrong with the situation – even though the narrator treats everything as though it’s completely normal.

Is “Telling” Always Bad?

Don’t force yourself to avoid telling at all costs – it’s a natural part of fiction. It’s fine to tell us “Thomas was overweight and balding” rather than spending a couple of paragraphs describing Thomas huffing his way up the stairs or standing in front of the mirror touching his bald spot – especially if Thomas is a minor character. The key is to avoid letting telling become a short-hand that stops you from developing major characters and situations.

Here’s an example from the first page of Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch:

The responding officers reported back to control, who alerted the area Murder Investigation Team whose duty officer, the most junior detective constable on the team, arrived half an hour later: he took one look at Mr Headless and woke his governor.

We don’t need to know who the officers are: it’s not important to the story. The “telling” mode is an appropriate one here – it gets the information across fast and keeps us moving. There’s also a hint of the first-person narrator’s voice (“governor” is slang for “boss” in this case – you’ll often hear it on British cop dramas).

If it’s essential that the reader has some specific piece of knowledge, it may well be best to simply state it in the narrative, rather than trying to make it into a scene. (Even better, try to dispense with it altogether: yes, you may have spent hours researching the intimate workings of black holes, but does the reader really need to know more than “if you go past the event horizon, you’re not coming back”?)

Sometimes, you might deliberately adopt a writing style that includes a lot of telling, and that’s fine. You may be using an omniscient narrator (rather than writing from a particular character’s perspective) or you might be using telling for comedic effect. You don’t always need to avoid telling: just be aware of the choices you’re making, and why.

 

If you’re concerned that your fiction involves too much telling and not enough showing, look for a specific instance of telling – and try to turn it into a scene. If you get stuck, just pop a comment below, and let us know what you’re struggling with.

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28 thoughts on “Understanding the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule

  1. Ali,
    You could not have posted this as a better time. I took a break from what I’m currently writing, because I was having trouble describing something and started surfing the web when I noticed you had a new post. I didn’t even read half of this post and it had already helped me so much I went straight back to my Word document. I had to come back here and read the rest. As always thanks a million.
    Bridges
    Bridges Stevenson’s last blog post ..Tulaq Ch. 2*

  2. Cool post Ali!

    I’ve recently noticed this difference when I been reading lately.
    For example, when I read true-crime books their all about tell, and when I read crime fiction like an Elmore Leonard novel it’s all about show.

    I have to always keep it on top of mind when I’m writing to show more and tell less.

    Thanks!
    Zac | Turning Point Motivation’s last blog post ..Why You’re Blog Is Like An Abandoned Amusement Park, And What You Can Do About It

  3. I enjoyed this post too Ali. telling is so much easier than showing. but i guess journalists and reporters tell? but writers and authors should focus on showing? thanks for the examples.

    • It depends what you’re writing — the “show don’t tell” rule is really for fiction writers, though I think more showing and less telling can benefit writers in many forms.

      Obviously, a fair bit of “telling” needs to go into journalism or information-based blog posts — but even then, some quotes or great examples can do a good job of “showing”.

  4. I think that “show don’t tell” works so well because it helps the reader see an inner movie of what’s happening before their inner eyes.

    That makes such a great reading experience!

  5. One of my husband’s friends posted your “8 secrets” article and I’m so glad he did. Your blog is an awesome tool for writers. I’m currently beta-reading for about four people – as well as writing myself – and no matter what advice I need to give my writers, I can always find a post here that can better illustrate and instruct them on how to improve.

    As for this post itself. Well, I have the opposite problem of showing too much and rarely telling. LOL. I guess I need to take that “it’s ok to tell sometimes” part to heart. Thanks so much for these posts!

    • Thanks! And I’m so glad that my posts are helping you and your writers too … I write a lot of mine based on problems that I see friends/clients having with their writing.

      It wasn’t until I got to MA level that a tutor finally said that it was OK to tell some of the time! And plenty of great fiction has passages of telling. I think “show don’t tell” is great advice for newer writers, but once we get a bit more experienced, it’s fine to break the “rules” 😉

  6. I really appreciate that you talk about times when telling is the appropriate choice. Showing is great when you want the reader to sympathize or when you want to create a strong visual, but telling is a great way to move a story from point A to point B by summarizing things that aren’t as important.
    Cheryl Reifsnyder’s last blog post ..10 Signs You’re Adjusting to Ebooks

    • Exactly! If I was writing a very short story (say, 1000 words) then I’d inevitably have to *tell* some things (“John had always been a loner, and he liked it that way” or whatever) rather than showing you the history of all the characters. The key is, like you say, to show the important things and summarise (tell) the reader anything where the details really don’t matter.

  7. Excellent information! I bookmarked it. As an editor, I have to explain this often. It’s not something we learned in high school…or college. It’s the essence of how to be an author and tell a story well. The difference between one of those books that leaves you mildly annoyed and one that stays with you. 🙂
    kate richards’s last blog post ..Somebody Else’s Baby

    • Great point about good showing being a characteristic of books that stay with us … I absolutely agree. Long passages of telling almost always put me off. (I’ve come across a few thrillers that include large chunks of historical/geographical research — way more than I have the patience for!)

  8. I think sometimes as writers we want to give all the interesting information or present a clear picture of the scenery…and don’t realize it’s not necessary. The story is the story and the background should be just enough to set the scene and take the reader there.
    kate richards’s last blog post ..Somebody Else’s Baby

  9. Someone was helping me understand how to convey my thoughts better, for the story I’m writing. They said “More showing and less telling”. I didn’t understand what she meant. Until I read your post about Understanding the “Show Don’t Tell” Rule. Much clearer now. Thank you.

  10. I hate and rigorously avoid reading any story that emphasises showing over telling, as it reads always like absolutely incomprehensible drivel — no exception. Consequently, there is no way whatsoever you can dissuade me from telling mercilessly and shamelessly instead of showing when writing my own stories.

    • I’m certainly no advocate of drivel! Of course most stories will involve some degree of “telling” as well as “showing” … and you are at liberty to strike whatever balance suits you best in your own writing.