When to Show, When to Tell, and When to Do a Bit of Both

One of the first things young writers get told is “Show, don’t tell.” Show us Tommy is angry, don’t just say “Thomas was mad.” Show us the school play was a disaster, don’t just say it was.

This is just what I got when I googled “school play.” Seems like better costumes than my school plays… 😉

In general, this is great advice. Showing is often how a reader starts believing and living a story, instead of just feeling like it’s being related to her. But the advice can be taken too far. Writers start feeling like they have to show everything. And of course, showing takes up far more room than telling (usually), and then we run into all sorts of problems like lagging pacing and a general lack of interest because no matter how vividly you show someone brushing their teeth, if there’s nothing else going on, people are going to get bored.

Sometimes, telling is just better. The trick is to tell in an interesting way. There’s also the mixing of the two—we don’t come right out and tell something, but we don’t go into a long scene, either. A lot of things can be summarized neatly this way—arguments that need to happen (but where what they’re arguing about isn’t particularly important), dinners that need to be eaten, etc.

For example: 

Purely telling: The school play was a disaster.

Purely showing: [long scene where we actually see the entire play, and how everyone messed up, etc, etc, etc.]

Mix: The audience started filing in by 7pm. By 7:50—twenty minutes later than planned—the curtain rose. By 8:15, four children had forgotten their lines, one seem to have forgotten he was in a play at all, and Billy Johnson had knocked a hole in the scenery. By 9pm, it was all, blessedly, over.

Another example:

Purely telling: John and Molly had a terrible fight in the alleyway behind the restaurant.

Purely showing: [long scene full of actual lines of dialogue]

Mix: Halfway through dinner, both John and Molly excused themselves from the table, assured everyone that everything was fine, just fine, don’t worry—and went to shout at each other in the restaurant’s back alley, the air thick with the stench of garbage. Between the kitchen noises of pots scraping against burners and waitresses calling out orders, Molly told John absolutely everything she’d ever hated about him, past, present, and future. He responded in kind. They were halfway through screaming about the time he’d lost her dog when they were both, suddenly, absolutely, exhausted by it all.

“We need to get through the rest of dinner,” Molly said, her shoulders slumped.

John nodded. Without either saying it, it was understood that this dinner was the last thing they’d need to get through together.

Of course, the two examples I gave were both slightly humorous/tongue-in-cheek in tone. They needn’t be, though.

What do you think? Have you ever found yourself trying to figure out just how much “showing” you should do in a scene, and what can just be summarized?


17 Responses to When to Show, When to Tell, and When to Do a Bit of Both

  1. Carrie-Anne Mar 18 2014 at 12:34 am #

    I write third-person omniscient, which can have a fair bit more “telling” than many modern readers might be used to. I think the trick to it working well is making it fit with a writer’s style and voice, and/or the type of book. A lot of classic literature has more telling than showing, and some of those books still read wonderfully while others feel slow, lagging, and dull. I also personally don’t have a problem with directly telling the reader important, establishing information early on, if it’s important to immediately understanding a character or situation. Sometimes you just can’t work that information in well any other way.

    Telling the reader can also work better if it’s a wraparound narrative segment summarizing a passage of time between scenes (months, weeks, even a few days), or catching the reader up on important events since the last chapter or part, when showing all that would bog down the story or make it unnecessarily longer. There are other times when it’s just more succinct, appropriate, and to the point to just tell the reader something instead of making him or her read between the lines and guess. A well-chosen adverb can be more descriptive and to the point than twenty extra words. I once tried to rework an opening based on someone else’s advice, and I ended up hating that version. It was too showy for my usual voice and style, and also made my character seem like a simpering idiot instead of the cocky, young, blonde Clark Gable he sees himself as. It felt and looked forced and pretentious, not how I’d naturally write at all.

    • Kat Zhang Mar 18 2014 at 3:11 pm #

      I agree that “telling” can have a unique voice that really makes things interesting. I’d definitely go with what feels natural 🙂 If it works, it works, right?

  2. Natalie Aguirre Mar 18 2014 at 7:03 am #

    Great advice, Kat. I think telling can be useful for something that isn’t a critical scene in a story. Like if the play wasn’t pivotal to the story, but you wanted to let the reader know it happened, telling in a few sentences or a long paragraph makes sense.

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 18 2014 at 9:54 am #

    All the time. My writing is primarily character-based and character-driven, and I often find myself in situations where some activity is occurring about which I do not care, except in respect of how it affects the characters. A duel, say, although your examples are excellent as well. I would also class descriptive prose in with this. Anything where the POV of the text is mine, rather than the character’s.
    I would also break ‘showing’ into two separate categories, character-telling and character-showing, in addition to pure ‘telling’. Pure telling is telling from my POV (yuck), characer-telling is telling from the character’s POV, which is often very useful, especially in those scenes where the actual details either don’t matter or are so ordinary the character has time to think about other things (which is where I would put my descriptive prose). The biggest benefit of character-telling is that it makes something that would ordinarily be static or distant into something immediate and personal. Character-showing is for the things the character is doing on purpose, as they relate to his goals.

    • Kat Zhang Mar 18 2014 at 3:12 pm #

      I like the idea of “pure telling” being different from “character telling”! Great way to explain it.

  4. Traci Krites Mar 18 2014 at 11:36 am #

    Great advice!! It’s tough sometimes to know whether to show or tell, this will help me sort it out!!

    • Kat Zhang Mar 18 2014 at 3:13 pm #

      Glad you found it helpful, Traci 🙂

  5. Erin Bartels Mar 18 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    Excellent examples. Thanks!

  6. Adam Silvera Mar 19 2014 at 12:26 am #

    Great post, Kat! Damn funny, too. 🙂

  7. chemistken Mar 21 2014 at 10:23 am #

    I also enjoy books that have a good mix of telling and showing instead of all showing. I can’t imagine the Harry Potter books without all the telling they had. It was part of Rowling’s voice, and to be honest, telling was the only way a lot of her humor would work.

    I sometimes spend so much time trying to show in my stories that I edit all the life out of them. I need to settle down and choose the amount of telling I want to incorporate into my stories and just write. Hopefully the readers will like my style.

    • Kat Zhang Mar 21 2014 at 4:37 pm #

      The Harry Potter books are a great example. Imagine how huge they’d be if Rowling “showed” us everything that happened the whole year!

  8. Julie Mar 31 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Great post, Kat! Your examples were not just witty, they were spot-on and really communicated your point. Ithink there is so much emphasis on “show don’t tell” that the concept of when and how to tell appropriately is hardly ever discussed. Thanks for this!


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