Friday, March 16, 2012

Show Don't Tell

Showing instead of telling is the fundamental rule of good writing. (It's followed by 'Omit needless words.) You’ll hear it over and over again—from teachers, other writers, editors at writing conferences, your aunt, that homeless guy at the bus stop... However even though everyone knows the rule, there still seem to be a lot of people who don’t ‘get it’.

If that’s you, it’s okay. It’s a simple rule and a good one, but it’s very vague and it makes a lot more sense after someone takes the time to explain it.

It is best explained in examples:

1. “He was cold.”

2. “He shivered, lips already blue.”

Example one is telling. The writer is stating, quite bluntly, that the character is cold. In the second example, the word cold isn’t mentioned—and yet the sense of cold is much stronger. We can, of course, vary the degree of cold with showing as well. Take example three.

3. “He chafed his hands over the arms of his jacket, his breath coming out in a long plume of white.”

Now the character isn’t shivering, he’s just rubbing his arms. It’s clearly cold—we can tell by the white breath—but he’s not freezing. This ‘showing’, rather than just stating, allows the reader to be better absorbed into the story. It can also be threaded neatly into the action and dialogue.

Now we know how to tell showing and telling apart, let’s look at the next be problem:

First person is not ‘telling’.

When using the ‘I’ voice, it feels natural to ‘tell’ the reader what is happening. It leads to lazy, bad writing—which is often very easy to churn out. However well written first person writing, while a little harder to master than third person narrative, does not ‘tell’.

The reason first person is harder to do well, is because of the instinct to write as if you were speaking. We don’t say: "I had fudgy rich slice with delicate spirals of chocolate’.” We say: “I had cake.” However writing is not talking and you must understand that if you’re going to take the craft seriously.

So how do we get showing from first person narrative? Example time!

1. I took the gun.
2. I slid my hand into the case and felt the solid weight of the glock.

3. I liked him.
4. I saw him through the glass and felt the flush rising in my cheeks.

Example four is a little ambiguous. Sometimes we flush if we dislike someone too. Or if they embarrassed us in the past. However further interactions between the characters should clarify the emotion for the reader. Just stating the facts, particularly when it comes to passion, is very boring.

However all four examples are in first person perspective and (hopefully) you can clearly see the difference between showing and telling.

Showing EVERYTHING is a sin.

The next big problem with showing and telling is writers who feel the need to show EVERYTHING in exacting detail.

1. I got dressed, had a coffee and walked down the street.

2. The dawn sun warmed my face as I slowly rolled to my feet. A red dress and silky black stockings hung over the chair. My bra was in the washing basket; I fished it out and tugged it on—following it with the dress and stockings. The tips of my stilettos were poking from under the bed and I slid them on, careful not to snag the silk with my nails. My heels clicked on the stairs as I made my way into the kitchen. Brilliant light, green and gold, filtered through the lace curtains. It flipped the switch for the coffee machine, hearing my stomach growl as I hunted for the blue and white chipped cereal bowl in the pantry. (Etc etc)

3. She still had a slice of toast caught in her teeth when she made her mad dash for the bus.

The problems with example one and two is they don’t provide us with any necessary information. Example one is telling and lazy. Example two just goes on and on and it was boring to write, let alone read.

Example three is tolerable, as long as something interesting happens in the following paragraph.

You don’t need to show every single waking moment of your character’s lives. Skip to the action—always. We don’t need to know how they get ready for work, cook, or get ready for bed. Show us the good stuff. Forget everything else.

Hopefully this has clarified why you should show instead of telling, how to show instead of telling and when to not show anything at all.

Happy writing!

Copyright. Talitha Kalago. 2011

Edited 2012.


  1. I was in search of a post to revive my knowledge of show don't tell because I'm having some problems with it. And this is the first intelligent post that really gets to the crux of the problem without being vague. THANK YOU!

    1. Thank you, I'm glad it was useful!

  2. This post was really helpful in clarifying how I don't need to show everything. I have a habit of describing every little thing.

    1. I think everyone starts on one side of that balancing act, either they focused on the dialogue and it turns into heads talking in a void, or they over describe everything. The trick is finding the right balance.