Saturday, July 9, 2011

Showing vs. Telling: The Myth of "Never Tell"

Every writer has heard it said that showing is better than telling.  You know the drill.

Sue felt angry.

Sue hurled the frying pan at Pat's head with a demon-tongued curse, and landed a kick to his newly prone limbs before heading for the exit. "See ya in hell, a-hole," she said, slamming the door behind her.

But, one problem I often see in manuscripts by amateur writers is showing to the extreme.  A manuscript that only shows and never tells becomes weighed down.  Most of the time, the reader  interprets this mistake as the novel being "overly long", "having weird pacing", or sometimes "lacking depth".  That's because if a writer always shows and never tells, their novel will jump from scene to scene like a screenplay but without the advantage of the acting and cinematography to bring it to life.

Here are five examples of when telling is preferred over showing:

1. Establishing the point of view 
ex: "My mother used to tell me about the ocean" -The Forrest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.

2. Communicating the narrator's thoughts about others
ex: "I didn't go to Alice's funeral....I hated Alice by then and was glad she was dead." -Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James.

3. Slowing the rhythm or pacing of the work so that the reader can digest an earlier scene
ex: "Can I help you?"
The man Jack was tall. This man was taller....People who noticed the man Jack when he was about his business--and he did not like to be noticed--were troubled, or scared...
"I was looking for someone," said the man Jack. - pg 18 of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.  See how that paragraph of telling interjected in the dialogue slows the pace and allows the reader to catch up with the scene?

4. Backstory, especially in a sequel or series.  
ex: "Harry was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated summer holidays more than any other time of year.  For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also was a wizard."-Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling.

5. When what happens isn't important enough to the story to develop a scene.
This is self-explanatory.  We don't need a scene to show a character doing the dishes or mowing the lawn. Also, we don't need a scene to show that minor character A talked to minor character B about subplot C.  Just tell.

Interesting to me is the fact that you can find more telling in classic literature than modern literature.  You can speculate why that might be (short attention spans anyone?).

I hope this helps you decide when to show and when to tell.  Write on fellow word-jockeys!


  1. This is very helpful. It sums up a problem I'm in the middle of working out. Perfect timing. Yippee, going to fix the scene now. Thank you.

  2. I understand the popular rule of "show, don't tell." It generally comes from teachers and editors whose exposure is overwhelmingly with amateur writers who can't establish good story flow, and forcing them to show you the story rather than tell you about it is an easy lesson. It's naturally incorrect at more complex levels. I particularly preferring characters straight-up telling backstory to the showing of flashbacks.

  3. Good post! I recently posted a link to an article saying essentially the same thing. "Show, Don't Tell" is good advice for beginners, but once you know what you're doing it doesn't have to be held to rigorously. Telling can be extremely necessary sometimes, and you're exactly right, it helps with pacing. Also, telling (in character voice) can be a sort of showing if it reveals things about the character and what they think about certain things (for the purists out there who might want to cling to the rule anyway ...)

  4. Right on. Couldn't agree more. And you're right about the dominance of Telling in older, especially European, literature. But I've seen large blocks of it in modern work too - two GREAT stories published recently in the New Yorker by Alice Munro, for instance.

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  6. (Original removed for confusing typo)
    I agree. I think I'm wired wrong to be a writer. As a reader, I skip exposition routinely. If a writer wants me to read a word, put it in quotation marks. Writing my own novel, I am definitely catering to Me, The Reader. I give just enough information for the reader to see the scene and then let the actors do their jobs. My favorite device to use is giving characters props. I regularly have them interact with the inanimate objects in the room, which usually gives more than enough detail about the setting.

  7. Thank you for posting this. It's a good reminder that some telling is necessary.

  8. Finding a balance can be difficult sometimes. Thanks for the great examples.

  9. Loved this post :) I used a similar Harry Potter example to a friend who's work I critiqued, and A.G. is right, sometimes finding a balance can be difficult. Again, it was an insightful post.


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