Show Don’t Tell

Show Don't Tell

Writers hear the phrase “Show, don’t tell” bandied about in the fiction world an awful lot, but what does it actually mean when editors comment that an author is simply telling rather than showing, and why is it made out to be such a big deal?

While authors have their own individual style, common story elements — from characters’ personalities to background about a fictional society — can be described in a number of ways. At times, it’s beneficial or even necessary for a writer to convey these details through explicit statements. But a story that consists solely of a laundry list of facts about a character or situation can get real boring real fast.

By describing characters’ conversations, facial expressions, actions and reactions, just to name a few, an author can convey the same information as a descriptive list would, but with more engaging prose.

Take the following examples:

  • “The cocky man was a smuggler, who didn’t care much about other people’s problems. He wasn’t pleased with the princess’s request.”
  • “The blaster dangled from his belt as he melted into the captain’s chair, legs sprawled in front of him. ‘Look,’ he snarled, ‘I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.'”

Yes, Han Solo is certainly cocky and doesn’t care for plans that don’t benefit him, but why just tell you that when I can show you through his actions, words, and stance? After reading the second example, you probably have a much better mental picture of Han and who he is as a character, not to mention aren’t bored out of your skull at the first’s relatively flat prose.

If you’re having trouble with the showing aspect of this common critique, practice describing different characters doing the same, mundane task (characters are probably the easiest example of showing vs. telling, hence my reliance on them in this post). How would Han Solo cook breakfast, versus Captain America, versus Cath from Fangirl? Each have different personalities, and aren’t going to move and behave in the same way. An angry Captain America will act differently than one running laps with Sam Wilson. Keep those traits in mind as you write descriptively.

There are times when, as an author, you need to cover more ground (and usually complicated ground, for that matter) and telling may better serve your purpose. Showing does take more time, but creates a much more vivid image than telling does. Just like with anything — really, anything ever, literary-wise or not — balance is key. I’ve read my fair share of stories that rely so heavily on description that the story turns into an adjectival mad-lib filled with clunky and empty prose. I’ve also read my share of stories that have no imagery whatsoever and use a character/narrator as a crutch to tell the reader about ALL THE THINGS!

As with everything, there is a time and a place for showing, as well as for telling.

What books drive you mad with too much telling or even too much showing?

Browse by category

  • I am now picturing a breakfast cook-off between Han, Cap and Cath. There is wild fanfic happening in my head.

    • YES! Make it happen. Or maybe we should toss it to Tumblr?

  • Kay

    I actually had this problem at the very beginning of Ready Player One. It felt like a LOT of exposition. Luckily, it improved and I adored the crap out of that book!!

    • I don’t know about you but I seem to be able to look past it more if the author is setting up a world that’s got some backstory to it. But then again, I look at A Darker Shade of Magic, which I’m only just starting, and it’s possible to be just as descriptive and not more factual “This. This. This.” Fantasy authors do it most easily and most often, it seems, so I guess even the “setting up a world” isn’t an excuse when you’ve got people so adept at world building. Asghfdjkgh;k I don’t know. RP1 does suffer from it, but it does pick up, but I’m just so mixed about Ernest Cline this week.

  • Ah this is a tough one, and one I am trying to balance in my own novel!

    • It’s a hard balance to strike! And ultimately I feel like it’s another “rule” that comes down to personal preference and a case-by-case basis. Good luck with it in your novel!

  • “Show, don’t tell.” Every writer hears this so often that after a while it does start to mean nothing, like when you hear a word too many times that it starts to lose meaning, you know? I really love this example haha!

    • YES! It’s all subjective in the end, but it’s a rule that, when not acknowledged, tends to go terribly wrong. Doesn’t mean hearing it constantly makes it any better ><;

  • Nina

    I love that you used Han Solo as an example! And “show, don’t tell” has been engraved into my brain since studying creative writing as an undergrad. It’s so important! You really don’t realize it until you start writing yourself and seeing how other authors show and not tell in their own works.

    • Haha, I always try to fit Star Wars in where I can 🙂 It’s interesting hearing all of the direction given to creative writing majors vs. literature majors! I’m from a different camp, but love hearing details from the other side. It really does stick out like a sore thumb when you’re reading!