When to Show and When to Tell

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penPreviously, I’ve talked about the importance of showing vs. telling and how showing details your reader rather than stating them outright can be a more effective choice. Writers are often advised to “show, don’t tell” for this reason. And in general, this is great advice. But it can be taken too far. There are some scenes or details that are going to drag down your pacing significantly if you try to show everything. So how do you find the right balance? How do you know when to show and when to tell?

This is a complicated issue, and one that often depends on the circumstances of your story. It can be helpful to think about what you’re hoping to accomplish by including a particular scene or detail. Knowing why you’re including it will help you determine how to do so.

For example, let’s take a line like, “She brushed her teeth.” That’s telling, but in most circumstances this is fine—you don’t need to give the readers a long, drawn-out description of how the character picks up their toothbrush, opens the toothpaste, etc. etc. If you even need to include this detail at all, you’ll want to tell it.

But wait. Let’s say you’re trying to establish some important characterization in this scene. For example, say you’re introducing the reader to a character who is extremely meticulous. (This example is getting ridiculous, but bear with me). You could simply tell the reader that “She was meticulous.” But what if you show it instead?

“She withdrew her toothpaste from its slot in the cabinet and applied it to the toothbrush in a single, even line. She scrubbed her teeth vigorously while counting, then rinsed the toothbrush thoroughly and put it away. She wiped an extraneous speck of toothpaste from the sink, rinsed the cap of the toothpaste, and replaced it in the drawer.”

Suddenly you have a much more vivid scene that readers will remember. Granted, this is still a fairly ridiculous example, and there are more interesting ways to show this particular character trait, but I hope you can see from this how showing might be effective.

But of course, if you aren’t trying to demonstrate anything in particular about the character, then having a scene where you describe how they brush their teeth is going to be incredibly slow and boring to readers. In that case, “She brushed her teeth” is more than sufficient.

Sometimes, telling can be better than showing. But the trick is to tell in an interesting way. It’s also helpful to blend telling with showing. Instead of telling your reader something outright, summarize it succinctly. Let’s continue our meticulous-character example. We’ve already looked at pure telling and pure showing, but what would the mix of the two look like?

“She devoted herself to every task with a fervor that she called methodical and others called maniacal. Even a chore as simple as brushing her teeth was a precise process, and she was nothing if not thorough. Every item in the bathroom cabinet returned to its proper place, and not a drop of toothpaste was ever wasted.”

This paragraph is more telling than showing, but it offers a summary of an otherwise boring scene and conveys the same character traits. Granted, it’s still not great writing, and there are still more interesting ways to discuss this character trait, but it does manage to express something about this particular character without a drawn-out scene or a blunt telling statement.

Let’s look at another example:

Telling: The picnic was a disaster. Everything went wrong.

Showing: [Here I would write a long scene detailing everything that went wrong and including action, internalization, and dialogue from the characters.]

Both telling and showing: The picnic was doomed from the start. Bob had completely forgotten the water bottles, and the bread was stale. The summer sun beat down on them relentlessly, and not even the slightest breeze relieved the heat. The whole terrible experience was topped off by an invasion of ants, who swarmed the picnic blanket and crawled into the cooler. “Well,” Bob said, watching the ants helplessly, “at least it couldn’t get any worse.”

So, the question of whether to show, tell, or use a mix of both depends on what you need from the scene. If it’s an important or crucial moment in the story, you’ll want to show it. If it’s an unimportant moment but needs to be mentioned briefly, you’ll want to tell it. And if it’s somewhere in between, you’ll want to use a mix of both, summarizing where possible and showing where needed.

What do you think? Do you struggle with showing and telling? How do you decide when to show and when to tell? Let me know in the comments!

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This post is part of my Writing Craft series. For more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

Showing vs. Telling: Character Emotion

From the Archives: Writing Great Opening Lines

Understanding Point of View: Eliminating Filter Words

When to Use Past Tense

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One thought on “When to Show and When to Tell

  1. Lynn says:

    Another very useful article, thank you!

    I was told by some fellow critique partners that using adverbs indicates you are telling and not showing. However, if I went through and removed every adverb, my manuscript would be overloaded with detail, so I try and achieve a balance.

    I’m struggling with how to express emotions in my memoir. I’ve done my best to show how I feel but some of the above-mentioned critiquers think I’m not giving enough information about what I’m thinking and feeling inside. This leads me to think I am doing too much showing and not enough telling, which I’ve noted on my MS and will be revised when the summer is over and the kids are back in school.

    P.S. I liked your example about brushing teeth. Your example of straight showing showed me the character has OCD. :)

    Like

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