Four Ways to Decide if You Should Show or Tell

Show, don’t Tell is a common guideline authors hear over and over. But does this mean you should never “tell”? No, of course not, but it does mean we have to figure out the best places in our writing where “telling” is better than “showing” and vice versa.

In this article, I’m going to break down the differences between Show and Tell, why you would choose one over the other, techniques for both, and four ways to decide if you should use Show or Tell in your writing.

Four Ways to Decide if You Should Show or Tell | Kate Johnston | Writing Coach | Editor

The Difference Between Showing and Telling

Showing activates a scene, passage, or character interaction through emotion. Sensory details, dialogue, and body language are tools writers can use to help intensify the moment to help draw the reader into the character’s experience.

Telling summarizes what is happening in the passage through reporting or reflection of either the viewpoint character or the narrator. Generalized, intellectual, antiseptic language externalizes the events for the reader, which maintains distance and lack of emotion.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov.

This is a popular quote that encourages writers to choose “showing” over “telling” whenever possible. However, if a writer were to show everything in a book then the reader would be exhausted by the constant stream of emotion. You need to release the reader from such intensity once in a while.

So how does a writer know when to show and when to tell?

Showing brings forth emotion

When we need our readers to connect with and relate to our characters, then we need to show how those characters respond to events in the book. This is all about emotions and feelings. Writers need to avoid saying what the character is feeling and instead dive straight into the core that holds all the meaning of the moment.

Telling provides information

Passages of narration work well through telling. We can pack in important information and get straight to the point through direct language. If we need to move our characters quickly from one point to the next but still relay information to the reader, telling is the best way to do that.

TELLING – Suzie is sad.

SHOWING – Tears rolled down Suzie’s cheeks as she placed the tulips on her mother’s grave, breathing in their fragrance one last time.

In the above examples, we can see the difference between the two through body language and sensory detail. While the first sentence is clear-cut—Suzie is sad— the second sentence gives us the meaning behind her sadness. When we decide to show something, we want our readers to connect emotionally to the characters. If the moment is important to the character, then the reader needs to be immersed in the moment as well.

Tips on How to Show or Tell

How to Show:

-do not interpret for the reader

-do not generalize

-use sensory details

-use body language

-build emotions through scenes with dialogue

avoid “to be” verbs and adverbs

 

How to Tell:

-maintain some distance between reader and character

-summarize action

-use narrative or exposition

-lack of specificity

-cut down or avoid sensory details

-use backstory or reporting of facts

 

4 Ways to Decide if You Should Show or Tell

Question #1: What do I want the reader to take away from this passage?

Emotion? –> Show

Information? –> Tell

Consider the balance of pacing when you make these decisions. You want to be sure you allow your readers to rest from the intense emotional or high-stakes moments, but not rest for too long or else they will get bored.

Question #2: What are my turning points?

Turning points are peak moments in your story that don’t work as well if they are filtered through narration. You want to “show” these pivotal scenes to bring forth emotion and draw your readers directly into your character’s experience.

Question #3: What happens directly before each turning point?

Depending on the kind of story you’re telling, you may want to balance out your pacing. Scenes or passages leading up to your peak moments might need to be slower paced so that your reader has a chance to be ready for the big event. Another consideration is timeline and logic. Telling can help clarify the passing of time as well as clarify the storyline for your readers.

Question #4: What happens directly after your turning points?

Telling might be a good option to describe the fallout from what just happened. Perhaps some explaining is required, especially if you’ve introduced a plot twist, a new character, or a surprise for your reader. Telling might work best in this instance. Any kind of emotional response by your character, however, should be shown, so sometimes aftermaths of major events might require a combination of telling and showing.

 

Your choices always come down to the kind of story your want to tell. This is above and beyond genre. What takeaways do you want for your readers? How do you want them to experience your story? Are you putting a fresh spin on a teen romance? Decide on the effect you want from your story overall, but also on each passage within your book. You want to aim for emotional connection and clear structure so that the book as a whole provides the experience you want for your readers.

Do you have difficulty deciding between showing or telling? Does one come more easily or natural to you?

6 thoughts on “Four Ways to Decide if You Should Show or Tell”

  1. Well-said and well-described! To me, showing and telling seem to come quite naturally – I used what felt right in the moment, trying to use both intermittently: showing to draw the reader closer into the story and to write about important events, telling when I wanted to “move on” or use a flashback. Good point about using “showing” to express emotions. I do remember deleting sections like “I felt…” often in the final draft of my memoir, as this emotion was obvious from my scene description.

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  2. Hey there, Liesbet– yes, words like “felt” or “saw” or “heard” are considered filter words. They create distance between the reader and the story. They work great in a pinch, though, so that you can get your thought down on paper and easy enough to revise.

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