Friday, September 7, 2012

Show, don’t tell? Maybe not!

All writers have heard that nagging admonition, “Show, don’t tell.” But, does it always make sense?
Writing tools of "show" or "tell" serve important and very different purposes. They complement each other, and when used with skill, they advance a plot effectively.
Showing creates emotion in readers—that flush of heat in a woman reader’s face while experiencing a torrid seduction scene, or anger shared with a main character who suffers the sting of torture at the hands of a hated antagonist. “Showing” supplies details of the character’s experiences in such a way as to allow the reader to supply emotional reaction.
Telling does not trust readers to reach the author’s desired emotion. Instead, it “tells” readers how to feel. On the surface, this sounds less effective, but there are two distinct benefits of doing so. First, telling is efficient. It wastes no words and pushes plot forward with as little loss of reading time as possible. Second, telling moderates the relentless emotional assault of showing by creating a welcome break for readers in an otherwise fast-paced, emotion-laden story.

Pretty simple, huh? Showing generates emotion in readers. Telling moves the story faster and reduces emotional impact. When combined properly, storytelling wins.
Let’s have a little literary fun with an example.
Tell:  Mary saw Matthew's body as she entered the room. She dropped to her knees and gagged, nauseated by the smell. Vowing retaliation for the killing of her only brother, she promised to deliver revenge against her brother’s killer, Demonis Maximus.
Show:  "Oh, my God", Mary said upon entering the room. She dropped to her knees, ignoring the growing pool of Matthew’s still warm blood. Brushing back flies that swarmed on his wound, the stench of death gagged her. The dead man’s youngest sister shook her fist in the air. “My brother’s murder came by your hand, Demonis Maximus,” her words forced through clenched teeth. “I swear on the grave of our mother, you shall die by my doing.”
Which is best? Showing her angst . . . or telling the reader of her pain and promise of revenge.
Answer - NEITHER.
If this drama is not essential to advancing the plot, then it must be informational in nature serving only to link more important plot elements. In that case, telling advances the story faster and does not generate wasted words for the reader or unnecessary emotional angst.

On the other hand, what if the plot relies on Mary’s hatred for Demonis Maximus to provide motive? Or, perhaps the writer’s goal is as simple as character develop in building compassion for Mary. In either case, her reaction to Matthew’s death should be “felt” by the reader. "Showing" the MC’s suffering allows the reader to share the same breadth of emotions as Mary did.
One word of caution—"telling" can insult a reader's intelligence. If the author does not trust readers to experience the desired impact, and simply tells them what to think, then some readers will drift out of emotional connection with the main character(s) or the storyline. By the same token, excessive "showing" can get annoying. Meaningless dialog, or repetitive, yet unnecessary drama, actually diminishes impact as it wastes the reader's time.
These distinctions of show or tell apply to omniscient narration as well. A narrator can say (telling) it was a beautiful day, or this unseen story-teller can describe elements of a beautiful day (showing) and trust the reader to reach the desired conclusion.
Show or tell? That is the secret of the best-selling authors I have read. Every great writer seems to find just the right balance between showing and telling. They know when to ramp up the emotional impact with dramatic showing and when to “tell” the plot forward to give the reader a breather before the next high-energy scene.
Understand the difference between these important skills, and use them with purpose, not by accident. Oh, and by all means, TRUST your readers.


  1. Great stuff, Dean.

    Personally, I think people worry too much about showing and telling. Both are vital to a story. Trying to write a story with all showing would take forever!

    Oh, and it's called storyTELLING.

    1. I agree, Dan. The key issue for writers is to master these tools and use them with literary intent. Thanks for coming all the way from Ireland to leave this comment...Dean

  2. I agree, Dean. There is a balance and a time, but trusting the reader to engage and understand is key. Telling vs. Showing ties right in with Direct vs. Indirect Characterization.

    Good post!

    1. Good point. Perhaps I can talk you into writing a blog about Direct vs Indirect Characterization. Your characters in Flank Hawk caught my attention from the first page and carried through the rest of the story. I would love to read your thoughts on the subject. Thanks for dropping by, and have fun at your book signing today...Dean.

    2. Dean, I have something posted before. Will brush it up and send it to you. (A number of schools have contacted me about permission to use it in the classroom, so it must have some merit.)

  3. I like these distinctions Dean. There is a time for both.

    1. Hi Cathleen, nice of you to drop by all the way from Australia.

      Obviously, I agree about there being a time for both. I wrote this blog because the constant brow-beating of aspiring authors with this show-tell mantra leads to a false notion that "tell" is somehow a bad thing. It's just a tool, used properly, it excels in advancing the story.

      Best wishes to you, too...Dean

    2. A most enjoyable article Dean. I most definately agree that the showing road to rome is not always the be all end all. Too much emotion can sculpt our characters in a fashion that may leave unsavory results. A well crafted blend comes across with the most delicious aroma I find. A tough balance but I think its crucial to maintain a mentality that some rules are simply meant to be broken.

  4. Hi Dave,

    You are right, in my opinion. "Show" and "tell" are merely tools, that when used with skill, produce timeless writing. Used rigidly, they generate mediocre stories. My post simply attempts to illustrate this distinction and to free aspiring writers from the trap of being handcuffed by rules.

    Thank you so much for your comments...Dean.


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