Show vs Tell

Show, don’t tell is a very common phrase passed between writers, but what does it actually mean?

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If you spend enough time conversing with other writers, eventually you will be told something along the lines of –

“You do a lot of telling, not enough showing. Show, don’t tell.”

The problem with this is that it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense if you’re new to writing, or if you’ve been writing for a while but haven’t really looked into the fine details of how you’re supposed to write, or you have to navigate through all the times when telling is encouraged.

Telling is when you state facts for your reader instead of allowing them to figure anything out for themselves or picture it clearly in their mind. What you should be doing instead is painting a picture and allowing your reader to deduce things for themselves.

Telling: John is tall.

Showing: John ducked his head as he passed through the doorway.

By showing, you create a rich tapestry that your reader can interpret in their own way and create their own image in their mind. It’s a much more immersive way to tell a story.

The problem, however, with show vs tell is that too much of either will make your story quite an unpleasant read. Too much showing and you create a story that is far too long and the plot, character development and all the good bits get buried in a sea of irrelevance. Too much telling and you will struggle to create an engaging story that people care about.

How do you know when to show and when to tell?

Experience from trying out ideas and gaining critique from other writers or editors helps a lot, as there isn’t a hard and fast rule as to when you should be doing either. Generally, every piece of your writing is trying to make a point to the reader. You are conveying your message to them. This is where you will find if you should be showing or telling.

If this point that you are making has some purpose to the plot, tension, character development, structure or anything meaningful to the overall story then you should probably be showing. If the point is not to do with that, or is to help you make those points, then you should probably tell it.

Let’s take driving a car as an example. What point are you trying to make with your character driving? If you’re point is that they are going on holiday and needs to fly there, then telling is fine.

John drove to the airport to catch his flight.

This makes your point very clearly and allows your reader to get to the parts of the story that actually matter.

What if that isn’t the point you are trying to make here? John could still be catching a flight to go on holiday, but maybe it’s his first holiday since his wife passed away. This is a great opportunity to show some character development, some emotion and a real insight into what’s going on inside John’s mind.

John’s hands gripped the steering wheel tightly, struggling to focus on the road in front of him. His wife’s favourite song came on the radio. He listened for a moment before he had to turn it off. Ten more miles. It was going to be a long flight.

Both of these examples are situationally correct, but it’s your job as the writer to know when to show and when to tell. There are other times when showing or telling when you’re not supposed to can make your writing better, more engaging and more interesting, but, as a starting point, focusing on the point you are trying to make and using that to guide if you should show or tell will set you on the right path.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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