The Great Show vs. Tell Debate (and how to tell which one you need)

There’s a specific reason I titled this post “Show vs. Tell” rather than the more common “Show, Don’t Tell.” Because not all telling is bad.

Yep, the second sentence in and I’m already trying to confuse you.

To show or to tell is the great debate of creative writing. Some absolutely think you should never settle for telling. I think you can do both and you won’t get eaten by a dragon.

A lot of this depends on personal preference and even the genre you’re writing in. Take Harry Potter – most of the novels take place at a school, so it only makes sense that some of their subjects are told and not shown. They practice pronunciation first and then are told how to flick their wands.

They also learn through watching other witches and wizards.

One of the many issues that some people have against the “show, don’t tell” rule is length. The more you show, the longer your novel, and higher the potential you might bore your reader.

This is the root of all confusion on this topic. Too much of a good thing is always a bad thing (alright, I admit it! I ate loads of ice cream yesterday).

So how do you show everything without boring the reader?

Easy.

You don’t show everything.

Ok, I hope that was helpful! Bye, guys!

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Just kidding.

The trick to showing instead of telling is being specific about details necessary to your story line.

Read that sentence again because it’s gold.

How do you bore a reader? You ramble on about something not important.

How do you make something important to a reader? Make them care about the characters and whether they’re going to achieve their goals.

Let’s back up here, though.

Let’s start from the beginning.

definition

What’s the difference between showing and telling? You might think this question is too easy to think about, but it’s always best to start from the bottom when you’re learning.

Showing uses descriptions that allow the reader to imagine the story’s events. Telling relies on exposition to relate ideas directly to the reader.

From my brief definitions, you can imagine why readers and writers prefer showing over telling. The latter is often “the easy way out,” while showing allows the reader to deduce what’s going on.

This means the reader has a more active role in the story. Some part, no matter how small, is left up to the reader to decide and that makes readers have a stronger connection.

I’m always using Harry Potter, so I’m sorry. But recently, it came to light that J.K. Rowling never outright said that Hermione was white. When asked how she would feel about Hermione being black, Rowling replied that she welcomed the idea – it was always left that up to readers to decide.

In essence, no two readers will read the same story. Showing allows for just enough addition by the reader to make them feel involved. Telling steals away that possibility.

This is not a simple topic.

But I hope that my solution is simple enough for you.

When you get sucked into the rabbit hole of describing every detail in your novel, stop to ask yourself if that topic is of importance to the plot.

Let’s break that down a little more.

Do we care how Sally gets ready in the morning? Sometimes.

Do we care how Bob makes his coffee? Sometimes.

Okay, enough with the wishy-washy answers. What I mean by “sometimes” is “it depends.” If Sally is getting ready that morning for the wake and funeral of her husband, then yes, we care. If she’s an eleven-year-old girl, and she takes eighty minutes to get ready, we don’t care.

If Bob’s job is to make coffee for the President, then we might care about how he does it. We won’t care, though, if it’s his morning brew at home before stumbling out of his apartment half-asleep.

Showing rather than telling immerses the reader in the story, making them forget about the writer behind the words. Great writing makes us stay up late and forget that we have to get up at 5 a.m.

Telling the parts you need to show steal away from the reader’s experience.

when-to-show-not-tell

Now that we know why showing is so important, and telling is typically frowned upon, let’s get to the meaty details all of you really want: how do you know when to show and not tell?

It boils down to wasted words, or WW.

I am moi familiar with good old WW. Back in the day, we were the greatest of friends. I used to get frustrated and confused by how frequently my creative writing teachers would label my writing as wasted words, and then typically ignore their heinous red marks.

It took some years, but that advice finally sank in.

Showing vs. telling boils down to wasted words.

Your time is valuable. Your reader’s time is valuable. Thus, you need to give them something of value for every second they spend reading your novel. They’re doing you the greatest favor in the world – taking a chance on your novel.

Don’t waste their precious time. Make sure every word you use has a purpose. If you, as the writer, just absolutely love coffee and want to spend ten minutes detailing how Bob makes it, that just hurts the story. As much fun as you had writing it, it’s a detail that needs to be told and not shown.

What was that? Did you hear it too?

I think I just heard my English teachers fainting.

ww-situations

How do you know ahead of time whether a description would be deemed as wasted words? First, you won’t always know. Second, ask “Does this serve a purpose in my novel?” Does it show characterization, add tension, mystery, describe an important ability or power? If not, you should probably keep the showing to a minimum on that point.

But what if you’ve already written your novel? That’s where editing comes in.

Over-writers and under-writers.

We’re two different species. An over-writer edits in a completely different way than an under-writer does.

I’m part of the former party. I describe more than necessary and have to trim things down at a later time. That’s okay – that’s what the editing process is for.

“But Vivien, that’s a waste of time. If I can just figure out when to show and not tell, then I’ll have less editing to do.”

I’m sorry, but you’ll invariably end up nailing a description only to find you don’t need it later. It happens to all of us. You might think that you need to show us how Martha panics before a test when showing her getting carted off on a gurney after the test might have more comedic punch.

My point is this: don’t sweat it while you’re writing your first draft. You’ll learn far more by writing and editing than you would by being afraid of over– or under-showing.

It’s a trial-and-error process, like much of writing.

My advice is this: finish that first draft. Tell the story and then worry about how you told it. Your beta readers (if they’re good and you should keep hunting until you find some good ones) will let you know if they got bored in Chapter 5 after the bedroom cleaning scene. Then you know you should tell it or just cut it all together.

examples

Let’s see some examples.

If you deem showing necessary in a sentence, then here’s a few examples so you can see exactly how to show instead of tell.

Telling: “The old man struggled to pick up his glasses.”

Showing: “The man’s hunched back bent even more, his liver-spotted hand shaking as he strained to reach his glasses.”

You can see that the sentence is longer, but the sentence is now more vivid. Character description (something many people ask me about) was squeezed in by showing and not telling.

Here’s another one.

Telling: “The dog was scared and took off at a run.”

Showing: “The little dog tucked its tail and let out a whimper as he scurried away.”

Most of us know dog behavior well enough to know that a dog tucking its tail means it’s scared.

When you’re trying to figure out how to dissect your sentences and turn them into “showing” sentences, look at verbs and adjectives. I replaced the word “scared” with a description of what a scared dog looks like – tailed tucked and whimpering.

homework

Here’s some homework for you. Or rather, a writing exercise :)

Turn these two sentences into one (or more) that shows rather than tells: “Aunt Penelope was enraged. She had never been in a more filthy place in her life.”

Comment down below with your sentence(s)!

I hope I gave all of you some food for thought on this topic – I know it brings a lot of confusion to writers and I hope I remedied some of that. Whether you catch yourself showing too much or realize in the editing phase you need to use more descriptions, remember that your writing is always a work in progress.

Continually improve and allow yourself to tinker on that first draft. Don’t let mechanics and technical issues like showing vs. telling hold you back from getting your story into the world!

Happy writing my friends!

9 thoughts on “The Great Show vs. Tell Debate (and how to tell which one you need)

  1. Excellent tips! By far the best and easiest way to understand when and why to do either thing!Also, I love your YT videos! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great tips! I’m still learning how to show and not tell! How’s this for a revision?

    Aunt Penelope’s hands balled into fists at her side as her eyebrows furrowed into a deep crease. The empty pop cans and food wrappers littering the floor nearly reached her ankles with not a single clear space in sight.

    1. Awesome job, girl! I like how you incorporated the eyebrows–I feel like so many writers forget about them!

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