A Long Look At “Show, Don’t Tell”

You hear that a lot, as a writer: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

It is, by itself, not entirely meaningful. Taken literally: films show, while novels tell. It’s doubly complicated by the word, “Storytelling.” As in, “To tell a story.” As in, “Wait, wasn’t I supposed to show instead of tell?”

As with all the succinct little amuse-bouches of writing advice, this particular nugget contains a modicum of wisdom if you can peel back the skin-flaps and chip away bone to find the heart of the thing underneath.

It’s like this:

We tell stories. But the advice asks us to look at how we tell those stories.

There exists a mode of telling stories which is strongly declarative: less visual, more intellectual and instructive, and with it comes the sense of a parent instructing a child. This mode relies more on telling.

There exists a mode of telling stories which asks more of the audience. It is more visual, more intuitive, and some might (falsely) claim it’s more “cinematic.” This mode relies more on showing.

Telling is explanation. It is definition. It is text. It says, This is that.

Showing is revelation and illustration. It is subtext. It asks, Is this that?

Telling walks ahead of you. It pulls you along.

Showing is the shadow behind. It urges you forward.

Telling invokes. Showing evokes.

Now, both modes have value in storytelling.

Sometimes you want to drop the audience into the space with no easy answers and have them feel around for themselves. Other times you need to take a moment, sit their ass in a chair, and give them a right-good talking-to. You need to tell them what’s up. You need them — if they’re going to proceed any further — to understand the sticky diplomatic relations between the jellyfish-like citizens of the Blumzorp Conglomerate and the constantly-micturating Night Goblins of the Moons of Hong.

Here, now, I will make some bold and debatable statements.

Generally, showing is a stronger mode of writing than straight-up telling.

The impact is more keenly felt. Imagine, if you will, a phone call where someone tells you, “Your mother is dead.” It’s a big gut-punch, that phone call. It’ll leave you reeling. Ah, but — now imagine a situation where you’re shown that rather than told it. Imagine you’re there when she dies. You’re there to feel the last flutter of a pulse, to share last words, to watch the life pass from her eyes as everything just… slumps.

The latter is more impactful, at least in my mind. The latter is you in that moment, witnessing it first-hand as a primary source. The audience wants to feel like a primary source — it gives them intimacy with the tale told and does not purport to keep them at arm’s length. Further, showing delivers a level of mystery, whereas telling often (though not always) obviates that mystery.

Another example, this one simpler but no less important:

Saying “John is angry” (telling) versus offering signs of John’s rage and irritation (showing).

You might reveal this through body language, through words chosen, through his actions. You’re letting the audience come to the conclusion regarding John’s vein-popping rage rather than straight up telling them he’s one pissed-off little monkey. Nothing wrong with letting the audience do some work.

Further, when we show things to the reader, we are building elements (character, setting, description) with details rather than letting a single statement (“John likes cake”) be the standard-bearer for the scene. Though therein lies a danger, too — just as you can tell too little, you can show too much.

When is telling more appropriate? Again, if you have information that absolutely must be conveyed, then telling is the way to go. It’s short and dirty and sometimes? It works. Further, you shouldn’t be afraid to have characters (through dialogue or, at times, through first-person POV) “tell” things. Explanation through a character’s voice and perspective still can carry with it the earmarks of showing — because just as it’s true that you as the author have choices in how you share information, so too do all the characters in your story. Characters speaking in their own voice are, in a way, showing.

And that’s maybe a lesson for the author, too — your voice in all this matters, and a strong and artful voice can make telling seem like showing even when it’s not.

What’s the ratio? How much showing versus how much telling? Since I like arbitrary made-up numbers with absolutely no reflection in reality, I’ll say, mmm, somewhere in the 70/30 split range, with the 70% going toward showing over telling. More to the point: more showing, less telling.

What say you, Internet? What’s your thoughts on this oft-spoken writing adage? Spun from gold? Heaped with bullshit? When is telling appropriate? Give examples or you get the hose.

76 comments

  • Good post.

    As for the perfect balance, the 70/30 split just doesn’t quite do it for me. I like 100/100 showing/telling split.

    The best stories show even when they tell, and they tell when they show. The little bits and pieces that are told form a collective vivid picture by blurring the line dividing the two concepts.

    For example, if I want to tell you that a guy gets shot with an Ak-47 in Times Square, I might begin by telling you about this terrorist who hates the wealthy. This told fact paints the first layer to the shooting. I might then show you a guy walking down the road on 42nd street in an Armani shirt. I might tell you that it was his favorite shirt. Show you as he talks to his friend, telling him about how he plans to spend that crazy bonus. Then I would merge the show and tell by letting you ask is this that? And telling you that this is indeed that at the same time. Somehow the guy would pull out his Ak-47, and you would see this line blur, as the crowd erupted into chaos and everything that was briefly told flashed in an epic picturesque moment. Both show and tell in one swoop.

    So yes, I think it is possible to both show and tell at the same time and that most talented storyteller mash the concepts together naturally. To surgically separate them is wrong, for no split should be necessary.

  • Thanks for reminding me of this important skill. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said on the subject in a letter to a fan.

    “In writing. Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.””

    Here is the link to the full letter. http://networkedblogs.com/vXTCu

  • I admit that show don’t tell was one of the most difficult concepts I ever learned, and I still struggle with it. But I plunk the whole story down now as it comes to me, then go back and fix things in multiple rereads and edits. Telling I might change to dialogue as it’s fast, informative and revealing.
    Good info as always, Chuck.
    I’ve learned so much by doing your challenges. Very grateful.
    I will be buying your books (regardless), and will send you a bottle of bourbon if I ever get published.

  • Still trying to tackle this in my writing…a lot of people say there should be no telling or ‘info-dumping’ at all, but I think the ratio you mention is about right. Thanks for the advice.

  • Hi, Chuck, I follow your blog and love your tweets, but I’ve never commented before.

    One aspect that is often overlooked in this whole show vs. tell argument is that of writing for the sake of writing, or writing for publication.

    I’m published under one of the big six and I’ve had the fortune to work with some brilliant editors, and I think a lot of MFA grads and other writing critics might be surprised to learn that there are times when an editor will say, “hey, let’s slash this entire scene (show) and replace it with a one paragraph summary (tell), so that we can keep the story moving and keep the word count down.”

    Showing is definitely an important part of storytelling, but as you aptly pointed out, a mix is definitely in order. Without telling, it would be impossible to get the full scope of say, an international mystery or thriller, into a requisite 100,000 words give/take. If one is writing literary fiction where the words mean more than the story, maybe this isn’t true… what do I know? I’m just a lowly genre writer.

  • True, too much show, not enough tell, makes Tom Clancy a dull boy – and results in a cartoon strip. There are times when an author needs to tell – to conceal a mystery or obscure an atrocity. Where would Tess of the d’Urbervilles have been if Hardy had graphically ‘shown’ her rape scene? (Indeed, was she raped at all?) The ‘tell’ mode is necessary to hide the riddle, which is the basis of the plot. Not least, a ‘show’ approach would never have been published…

  • I thought your arbitrary split between showing and telling was about right. One of the main reasons showing works better in a story is that it usually involves showing the character’s emotions and that’s a good way to engage the reader. If the reader doesn’t care about your main character, then they won’t read the book.

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