Showing vs. Telling – What Does it Really Mean?

show_tellWe’ve all heard this tenet of writing. Show vs. tell. My editor always hammer me for too much telling and not enough showing. I’ve really tried to work on this aspect of my writing, but, being a learning nerd, I had to know the mechanics behind it.

For one thing, you can express traits or history for your characters more succinctly by using dialogue than can be done through narrative. Here is an example.

Joe Smith was a career criminal. He had robbed several banks and had been in jail many times since his teens. As he prepared to rob the first national bank, he reflected on his past and was amused at the fact that he hadn’t learned his lesson and stayed out of trouble.

Here is the same scenario framed as a conversation that Joe is having with his brother, Jim.

“Why do you keep doing this?” Jim asked.

“It’s what I do,” Joe said with a smirk. “Since I got busted at 17, the longest job I’ve had is being a crook which alternated with being locked up. I don’t know anything else.”

In this example, the dialogue tells us that Joe is a career criminal and that his brother is not and has a hard time understanding his brother’s lifestyle. This could have been many paragraphs of narrative to convey the same information. When you reveal information this way, it not only informs the reader, but it allows him or her to use imagination to fill in the blanks and form an impression of the character.

This also works for physical descriptions and other character quirks. Telling the reader your character walks with a limp is less interesting than having the character convey to someone else that they suffered a traumatic leg injury in the war.

By using this technique to reveal character details, you can spread them out over the course of a story instead of doing an information dump which might cause your reader to become bored or forget these details later on when they might be important.

Here are some quick tips to avoid telling too much when you should be showing:

  • Look for areas with long narratives with a lot of description. Character introductions are a likely spot where this might take place where you might be tempted to give a lot of back story.
  • If you are going to substitute dialogue for narrative. Pick out the one or two most important points that you want your characters to relay through their conversation. Ask yourself if these points will advance the story or give the reader vital information.
  • Replace information with action. Instead of saying your character has a hangover, have them describe or experience the headache, cotton mouth and nausea. Use actions and feelings the reader can relate to.
  • Don’t show too much. Keep some details to yourself, if this doesn’t hurt the story, and sprinkle them throughout the story as you go.

So, what are your thoughts on the “Show vs. Tell” rule? I look forward to your thoughts.

16 thoughts on “Showing vs. Telling – What Does it Really Mean?

  1. Good advice and example, Don. I taught this to high school students for years. I began with a simple exercise. I wrote on the board “The pizza tasted good,” a telling sentence. What does “good” mean? Then they had to write a paragraph describing the strings of mozzarella, the layers of meat, the herbs permeating the sauce. But guess what? My editor always find spots in my writing where I’ve gotten lazy and “told” the reader details instead of “showing” through dialogue, action, reaction. We all need editors for our own writing, which is a complete post in itself!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. My editor hammered me on my first book for too much telling. I am a business writer by trade and things like project charters, requirements documents, and user manuals are mostly about telling without dialog. It was a difficult adjustment, but has worked out well. It’s a much more fun way to write, in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes it is. When I see issues in my own work, I tell myself it’s a learning experience. One of the best experiences was listening to my books as they were produced in audio book format. There were moments when I was happy and though, “did I really write that?” There were other moment where I was not so happy when I said, “did I really write THAT?”


  2. Pingback: Curated Content for 09/22/17 | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Showing vs. Telling – What Does it Really Mean? — Author Don Massenzio – I Suck at Writing

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