Show vs. Tell: How to Show

Click on photo for source.

Click on photo for source.

We’ve all heard it, the whole argument between showing vs. telling. In fact, we’ve heard it so much that we actually think we understand it. But I’ve got news; it’s perhaps the trickiest concept to master, even for experienced and ‘successful’ authors. Hell, often it can be a bugger just identifying when you’ve faulted in your own writing.

I’m breaking this blog post up into two parts.

Part One—Show vs. Tell:  How to Show

Part Two—Show vs. Tell:  When to Tell

Because really, it’s not all about showing. As was pointed out to me by one of my trusted writing/editing buddies, ‘reading an entire novel worth of showing would be exhausting.’ Some who prescribe to the black and white theory that it’s show, show, show no matter what will want to come at me with pitchforks and torches, but hear me out. Novel writing is rarely so black and white. Those who follow the point, I’d invite you to share other insights on the topic. Certainly we can learn from each other.

That said, for Part One it is all about showing, because that’s what we’re going to focus on. The hardest thing to get is what really constitutes showing as opposed to telling? For that, there is one question folks ought to consider:

Are you creating the illusion of being there in the story, or are you simply reporting the feeling or action to the reader, or explaining a neat story concept?

Showing is challenging sometimes because it typically takes more work and more words. Often authors get so excited about what they’re writing that they want to plow through it and get it all on paper. The problem is, rather than bringing the reader in they’re really just synopsizing the concept, just in a thorough way.

The Basics

Bob was mad. (telling)

Bob gritted his teeth and mumbled a cursory. (showing)

The first example paints no picture, simply reports information. We know Bob was mad, but we can’t visualize it without creating our own context and imagery.

The second example doesn’t explicitly say Bob is mad, but he exhibits symptoms of anger which should be enough to allow the reader to quickly draw that conclusion. Furthermore, the reader can see and experience his anger through those symptoms.

So this begs the question, if it’s so difficult to identify when an author is telling and when he or she is showing, what tricks can we adopt to help show a scene?

Using Dialogue

Dialogue is fast-paced, easy and entertaining to read. Often it can even drive the action. One thing to consider in dialogue (and really, this is a future blog post) is that dialogue does not simply refer to the words spoken by characters. Again, we are striving for show over tell, which means having the character tell the reader what’s up is often still just telling. Therefore, the dialogue ought to include appropriate show in the transitory prose between the spoken dialogue—gestures, expressions, reactions go a long way to help bring the reader inside a character’s mind.

For example:

Bob was angry at Jim. (Telling)

“Dammit Jim!” With a face flushed with rage, Bob snatched the wrench from Jim’s hands and flung it against the wall. “You’d best get out of sight this afternoon,” he barked. (Showing)

Use All the Senses

Most people don’t give it much thought, but the way we take in information is much more diverse than simply observing it. Often we respond to sounds, smells, tastes and touch without even thinking about it.

Consider how these examples of sensory-based imagery can evoke specific emotions or associations.

  • Grandma’s room smelled of staleness and dust.
  • It was as if my head had been stuffed with rocks.
  • Hot with fever and a throat that felt like it had been lined with fishhooks.
  • The progressive grating of gears and incessant beeping from the assembly line made it difficult to think.

Avoid Vague Words

He was kind.

He showed a lot of courage.

These are a couple examples of descriptions that bear no credence with a reader, because they are subjective and vague. Courage and kindness can mean a great many things depending on who you ask.

Another example:

Bob was working in the garage. (Telling and ‘working’ is a vague word)

Bob twisted the ratchet, loosening each bolt of the hubcap before letting them fall with a clang. (Showing)

Summary

You get the idea (I hope). There is a big difference between showing vs. telling, and while most of you are probably saying to yourself, “Yes, but I don’t do that,” take a close, close look and you might be surprised at some unintended tells floating in there.

That said, it’s not a bad thing to tell! In fact, many times it’s absolutely necessary. But we’ll save that argument for part two.

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About authorphilpartington

Phil is a writing enthusiast of many years, having been published in numerous online and national print trade and sports publications over the past decade. He has spent the past five years delving back into the world of fiction writing, focussing on the fantasy, horror and suspense genres. Deshay of the Woods is his first novel.
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23 Responses to Show vs. Tell: How to Show

  1. Dyane says:

    Ha ha, you know my thoughts on this one. Great job of outlining it in a clear and concise way…fine, that’s vague. But really, I refuse to say that, for the first time, my inattentive mind has fully embraced the ideas and examples presented, examples which had heretofore been as difficult for one such as I to grasp as the workings of the stars and the moon above or the dance of the eagle upon the wind. Now my creative heart can rise above the Dull and Oversimple Tell to express the many secrets abiding in my innermost soul. Amen.

    Can’t wait for part 2!

    • lol You booger. I think you’ll like part two better. Remember, this is HOW to show, not when it applies best. Part two talks more about that, but from the perspective of WHEN to tell. 🙂

      Part two will be posted tomorrow.

      • Dyane says:

        Lol I actually knew you were going to call me that!
        The post was great. I’m just a sarcastic booger so I can’t help the colorful commentary, lol
        Looking forward to it!

  2. Dyane says:

    Reblogged this on Dropped Pebbles and commented:
    Great post about Showing versus Telling. Thanks to Phil P. for this one!
    Stay tuned for Part 2.

  3. Nina Kaytel says:

    I’m still beating my head against the wall on Show vs. Tell. Thanks for the post.

    • I know the feeling, Nina. it’s easy-ish to talk about, but as I said, hard to identify. That comes from personal experience. I still catch myself all the time.

      • Nina Kaytel says:

        I did two posts on this topic. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which or what is needed. I had a beta reader mark every instance of showing — I revised it, but there are only so many times I am willing to show nausea before you just gotta be dammit, she’s nauseous. Then I beta read back the who though was showing and there were points where I was lost to what the character was feeling or doing and became very confused. I just wanted to know why the character tensed rather than see him tensing.

        I hope you don’t mind the re-blog. I am unsure of the Etiquette for re-blogging.

      • Re-blog away! The etiquette is that’s it’s a compliment and it spreads awareness of the original post. You’re always welcome to re-blog my posts. In fact, I appreciate it.

        Oh, and not to be a snob (editor by trade), but it’s “she’s nauseated.” One feels nauseous :P. One is nauseated. Sorry. Annoying as hell, I know lol.

      • Nina Kaytel says:

        Oh oppies! My mistake. Thanks!

      • But of course 🙂

        By the way, I’ll be checking out your blog for your show vs. tell posts. I’m sure I didn’t cover all of it. Would love to see your additions :).

  4. Got to find the happy medium. It’s like dealing with the dialog or exposition debate 🙂

  5. I’ll be waiting to read it.

  6. Jade Reyner says:

    Great post – I have just been thinking about this myself. A reader commented that I did a lot of showing rather than telling and that that was a good thing. I must admit that I hadn’t really thought about it so I then began to become more aware of how I was using both the show and the tell. Showing is better, but I agree, there are times when we need to tell. I really enjoyed this – following you now to eagerly await part two! 🙂

  7. Very interesting Phil … One a statement the allows us to visualise and extend our thoughts.

  8. jackiemallon says:

    Good reminders, thank you!

  9. schillingklaus says:

    As a reader, I prefer telling over showing. Ergo, I will not be deterred from telling religiously and remorselessly by any of your dictatorship of style. The same is valid for adverbs, passive voice, and nominalisation.

    • lol My dictatorship style? You’re missing the point. If you’d read, you’d see that I think telling is a good thing. It’s not an either or thing; it’s when ought one be applied over the other. And sure, you can go ahead and just tell for the entire novel, but chances are it won’t be any good. That’s not a style–that’s just sound writing.

      • Of course, there are exceptions to every rule in fiction writing. Maybe yours is the one! If so, good for you :). I’ve yet to see a complete exception to this rule, though. Best of luck with it. Let me know if you find it (seriously).

      • schillingklaus says:

        Authorial telling of a whole novel would be my supreme ideal. There is no way I will be deterred from this goal. Henry Fielding, William M. Thackeray, and a few others already approached this ideal to a great deal.

      • Like I said, best of luck. I haven’t read any of their work, so I can’t comment on it. I have read others who’ve attempted using more tell for a novel, and I haven’t seen it work well. Sebastian Junger’s, The Perfect Storm, was pretty heavy handed in the telling, but that was because his background is in journalism and so he wrote it more with that style in mind. I didn’t like it at all…dragged on and on IMHO. But, no arguing the results. He got a movie deal, after all.

        And really, it goes back to breaking “rules” purposefully.

        This article (https://authorphilpartington.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/the-rules-of-grammar-and-novel-writing/) is what I base most of fiction writing on. It pertains specifically to grammar, but applies to other “rules,” as well. That is, pretty much all rules are meant to be broken, but that the author should understand the rule and break it with purpose or intent rather than just to avoid it. It sounds like you’re trying for the former,…and good for you…but that also means I don’t think I’m really speaking to you specifically. I’m speaking more to the writers who tell simply because they don’t know better.

        For me, telling still is much less effective, but I’d love to hear arguments for the approach.

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