“Show, don’t tell,” was what I was taught at school.
Telling, on the other hand, is a straight-forward (and usually far more succinct) expression of actions, characteristics, and backstory.
Here’s a simple example of “show, don’t tell”:
Show: The skin resists the blunt knife, dimpling slightly before bursting open in a splatter of red liquid. All over my hands. All over the kitchen counter. What’s inside is worse: a viscous mess of seeds and soggy flesh that oozes across my plate, and turns to a fragrant mush in my mouth. It isn’t the taste, but the texture that makes me long to spit it out.
Tell: I hate raw tomatoes.
In my example above, the difference between the two approaches is marked. However, in practice, it isn’t always so easy to distinguish between showing and telling.
In this article, I’d like to explore the techniques used by 3 famous authors to blend showing and telling in order to unfold the plot, the characters, and the world.
Showing vs. Telling
Here is a general comparison of showing and telling:
|Conveys more focused detail||Conveys a broad overview|
|Slows down narrative||Speeds up narrative|
|Character is dominant||Narrator is dominant|
|Foregrounds perceptions||Foregrounds context|
|More personal/intimate||More impersonal/universal|
|Writer works more||Reader works more|
- How vs. What – showing is more likely to explain and describe how something occurs, whereas telling can simply state what happened.
- Detail vs. Overview – showing focuses on providing details in an effort to imitate the character’s experience, while telling is more useful for providing a broad overview or generalisation of the situation.
- Verbose vs. Succinct – since showing requires more detail, it’s usually wordier than telling.
- Slow vs. Fast – another consequence of providing more details is that the pace of the narration slows down. Telling, in contrast, usually speeds up the story.
- Character vs. Narrator – because showing often relies on the way the action of the story is perceived, the character becomes more dominant. However, this character may be the narrator themselves.
- Perception vs. Context – even if the perceptions are shown from the point of view of a disembodied narrator, they’re usually more focused. Telling, in contrast, is better suited to provide context.
- Personal vs. Impersonal – because it foregrounds perceptions, showing can feel more personal, whereas telling can impart a universal quality as exemplified by the fairytale formula: “once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there lived a…”
- Writer vs. Reader – showing requires a writer to expend skill, time, and words. Although it can help to draw the reader in, I think it can be argued that telling a story demands more of the reader, who has to fill in the details through the work of their own imagination.
The aim of the “show, don’t tell,” rule is to encourage writers to describe the action of the story in a way that draws the reader to experience it alongside the character.
It’s a useful reminder to think about how you convey information.
However, as I think the examples in this article will demonstrate, showing and telling are more effective when used together.
“SHOW, DON’T TELL” EXERCISE
Practice by turning these examples into their “opposites”…
Show: It was the most enthralling book she had ever read.
Tell: He watched the pin-point of light appear in a fold of the distant mountains. Within seconds, the point had grown into an orange ball that rose up, turning the sky a paler blue, even as the ground went from blue to a warm, weak brown. The shadow withdrew, creeping under the boulder with the timidity of a panting animal. As the light engulfed his haversack, seeking out the wrinkles of the fabric, he reached out, grasped the rough strap with calloused fingers, and stood, lifting the sack up to his shoulders in one strong, fluid movement.
★ It’s easy to focus on describing a scene’s visuals, and forget that there are (at least) four other senses that can contribute to transporting the reader to the story world. Fill out this senses worksheet if you need more guidance.
Show, Don’t Tell the Plot
The techniques of showing and telling are essential to fleshing out your plot structure.
✓ Telling can impart a lot of information very quickly, which is why it’s often a good choice for setting the scene.
✓ Showing, on the other hand, conveys story information slowly, but more in-depth. It’s more entertaining, so I recommend you use it in abundance for scenes that you want to linger in.
One of Ernest Hemingway’s writing tenets is to pare down story information as much as possible. His aim is to erase the narrator, and thereby the filter between the reader and the characters, but this doesn’t mean he shies away from telling. Quite the contrary!
For example, here is the very first sentence of The Old Man and the Sea:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
This telling sentence brings the reader up to speed, introducing the character, the location, and the situation.
You might argue that the rest of the novella is Hemingway showing the first sentence and its consequences.
A writer can often give away a surprising amount of information about the plot, because the reader can still enjoy the pleasure of the details unfolded through showing the character’s journey.
After his first telling sentence, Hemingway continues to weave showing and telling throughout the novella, creating the oceanic rhythm of the old man’s monologue.
“Bad news for you, fish,” he said and shifted the line over the sacks that covered his shoulders. [showing]
He was comfortable but suffering, although he did not admit the suffering at all. [telling]
You can use this technique of alternating lines of showing and telling as a way to break up long sections of introspection.
Hemingway has another interesting trick that combines the functions of telling and showing.
Glossing over boring passages of time is one of the chief advantages of telling.
Throughout The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway repeatedly tells how much time has passed, but simultaneously shows its effect on the character through the perceptions of the old man…
The sun was two hours higher now and it did not hurt his eyes so much to look into the east. There were only three boats in sight now and they showed very low and far inshore.
He rested for what he believed to be two hours. The moon did not rise now until late and he had no way of judging the time. Nor was he really resting except comparatively. He was still bearing the pull of the fish across his shoulders but he placed his left hand on the gunwale of the bow and confided more and more of the resistance to the fish to the skiff itself.
For an hour the old man had been seeing black spots before his eyes and the sweat salted his eyes and salted the cut over his eye and on his forehead. He was not afraid of the black spots. They were normal at the tension that he was pulling on the line. Twice, though, he had felt faint and dizzy and that had worried him.
He had sailed for two hours, resting in the stern and sometimes chewing a bit of the meat from the marlin, trying to rest and to be strong, when he saw the first of the two sharks.
To use this trick, look for descriptions in your story when your character is fairly still for a long period of time. Instead of mentioning the passage of time, and what your character does before and after, describe their sensations during that time period, and how they perceive time passing.
Notice how this technique doesn’t take up much space in the narrative. It seems to create contrast by speeding up the time it takes to tell the story, while slowing down time for the character.
SHOW, DON’T TELL PLOT EXERCISE
Find a section in your story where your character is relatively inactive.
Rewrite the section, paying close attention to continued sensations, and to showing how these sensations create the character’s sense of the passage of time.
★ The Old Man and the Sea takes place over a relatively short time span (about 5 days), but the telling mode can be useful for summarising much longer periods, and thereby keeping the narrative from lagging. Try using it to open a scene or chapter.
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Show, Don’t Tell the Characters
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses both showing and telling to build her characters.
During the amusing conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet that opens the novel, Austen begins by showing us her characters’ very different personalities through their responses to each other.
✓ Mrs. Bennet is talkative, obsessed with the idea of marriage, and repeatedly fails to understand the jest in her husband’s tongue-in-cheek questions.
✓ Mr. Bennet is laconic. By the way that he baits his wife, we gather that he is more intelligent than her — of course he knows that Mr. Bingley’s design in settling at Netherfield can’t be to marry one of his daughters, — but by his overall reluctance we can assume that he doesn’t take any great delight in the conversation:
“Is he married or single?”
“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”
“How so? How can it affect them?”
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” replied his wife, “how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them.”
“Is that his design in settling here?”
“Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
Contrast is a useful “show, don’t tell” technique when writing a character. Why not try allowing two contrasting characters to interact in a scene, and see how they show up one another’s differences?
Our perception of Mrs. Bennet’s lack of insight also has the effect of making us, as readers, feel more intelligent. This is the sort of subtle effect that showing can create, that telling — “you, dear reader, are far cleverer than silly Mrs. Bennet,” — could not.
Finally, Austen confirms our assumptions about Mr. and Mrs. Bennet by concluding the chapter with a telling summary of their personalities:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
Right away, we have confirmation that the behaviour we just witnessed in Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is habitual.
In the same way that telling allows us to skip over the details of a relatively uneventful time period in the plot, it can also help us quickly sketch out a character’s backstory, even 23 years of it!
Austen’s habit of passing judgement on her characters in this way builds up the authorial voice, too. The effect is of a bright, witty narrator who earns our trust through her sound understanding of character; much like her heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in fact.
Though Elizabeth was wrong on at least one occasion…
In order to write a character summary like Jane Austen, I recommend you fill out the character sketch worksheet.Once you have a broad overview, you can show your characters’ personalities through their differences, and through their conversations.
Show, Don’t Tell the World
Finally, how can we use showing and telling to describe the story world?
Telling is often responsible for the dreaded, “info-dump,” of worldbuilding. An “info-dump” is a condition in which an author needs to provide a certain amount of background information, and does so in a wholesale way that was much in fashion until the 20th century, but which nowadays often feels boring, clumsy, and contrived.
The alternative to the info-dump has been termed, “incluing.” In incluing, the author introduces world information as it becomes necessary, in a way that feels natural within the story.
Having a character tell another character a story is a fun and simple way to use incluing.
The main function of telling is, of course, to tell stories.
Try finding a storytelling character who is more knowledgeable about the story world — perhaps older and more experienced, — and a listener who is new to the world — a stranger or a child.
Through the exchanges between these two characters, you, as a writer, can inform your reader of the elements of the world that are important to the story.
For example, here is Dr. Mary Malone telling Will and Lyra a story in The Amber Spyglass by Sir Philip Pullman:
“… Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I’d spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.
“And then someone passed me a bit of some sweet stuff and I suddenly realized I had been to China. So to speak. And I’d forgotten it. It was the taste of the sweet stuff that brought it back – I think it was marzipan. Sweet almond paste,” she explained to Lyra, who was looking puzzled.
Lyra said, “Ah! Marchpane!” and settled back comfortably to hear what happened next.
“Anyway,” Mary went on. “I remembered the taste, and all at once I was back tasting it for the first time as a young girl.
“I was twelve years old. I was at a party at the house of one of my friends, a birthday party, and there was a disco – that’s where they play music on a kind of recording machine and people dance,” she explained, seeing Lyra’s puzzlement. “Usually girls dance together because the boys are too shy to ask them. But this boy – I didn’t know him – he asked me to dance, and so we had the first dance and then the next, and by that time we were talking… And you know what it is when you like someone, you know it at once; well, I liked him such a lot. And we kept on talking and then there was a birthday cake. And he took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth – I remember trying to smile, and blushing, and feeling so foolish – and I fell in love with him just for that, for the gentle way he touched my lips with the marzipan.”
Dr. Malone and Will come from our world, whereas Lyra was born in a parallel universe. Even though we, the readers, may be familiar with marzipan and discos, her explanations remind us of Lyra’s unfamiliarity. This unfamiliarity with our world has ramifications for the plot that you know only too well if you’ve read His Dark Materials.
But there is more to Dr. Malone’s story than just providing a few pieces of worldbuilding information. Through the metaphor of China, she’s giving Lyra, who’s still a child, her first taste of what it means to be a grown-up.
Sir Philip uses this crucial juncture in the story to switch from the predominantly telling mode of Mary’s speech, to showing Lyra’s reaction, and in particular the physical effects that the story has on her body:
As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognised the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on…
Note: this passage is heavily abridged in the American version of the novel.
Lyra’s reaction to Mary’s story mirrors our reaction to the larger story. We embody her sensations.
Just as Lyra becomes aware of rooms opening up in a building inside her, so the fictional space opens up and gains new meaning for us, the readers.
You can use this meta-textual layering in your own story by considering what emotions you want to excite in your readers, and then creating a real or metaphorical location to symbolise those emotions.
SHOW, DON’T TELL WORLD EXERCISE
Look for an opportunity in your story for a character to tell a story to another character.
How can you use the story to inform both the character-listener, and your readers about some unfamiliar elements of the story world?
How can you show the listener’s reaction in a way that parallels the reaction you want to evoke in your readers?
In the description of Lyra’s awakening we can see another benefit of the showing mode: describing experiences that cannot be easily defined or expressed, events that cannot be off-handedly truncated, and insights that are only elided at our peril.
Which, after all, is why we tell (and show) stories.
- Ernest Hemingway…
- alternates showing and telling in the old man’s monologue in a way that emulates the feeling of the rhythm of the ocean, and controls the pace of the action;
- and uses telling to state the passage of time, and showing to describe the effects of time on the character.
- Jane Austen…
- opens her novel with two contrasting characters who show each other’s shortcomings;
- and concludes the first chapter with a telling character summary that confirms what the dialogue has just shown, and also develops the narrator.
- Sir Philip Pullman…
- describes a character telling another character a story which conveys world information in a natural way;
- and shows the listener’s reaction through descriptions of their thoughts and feelings as they explore the world.
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