You know, I’m honestly surprised that, in nearly eleven years of blogging, I’ve never once talked about this subject. Well, no time like the present, right?

“Show, don’t tell” is a common phrase taught by creative writing classes and preached by writers of all stripes. Yet actually figuring out what each one is, how to tell them apart (unfortunate pun intended), and then avoid doing one versus the other is really difficult to do. Especially in your own writing.

Or should I say, in my own writing? Yeah, during editing of Queen Alice, the second story in Hannah and Other Stories, one of the notes that kept popping up was, “This is telling. Show it to us!” And while I managed to get something that would satisfy the editors down on paper, it still left me wondering how I was supposed to do this for future stories. Especially for those in Hannah.

Well, I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I do research. And while I’m still not sure I have the method down, I think I gleaned a few gems that should help.

First off, based on what I’ve found, you don’t just give up telling entirely. You actually do need to tell some things. Telling is good for things like quickly moving through parts of the story that aren’t integral and don’t need a lot of description. A better way to phrase this rule would be, “Show more, tell only as necessary.”

Next, what are showing and telling? Well, “telling” is a lot like summarizing. It’s quickly laying down the bare plot events in quick succession. There’s not a lot of description, but it’s enough to tell you what’s going on. Another way to look at it might be as thinking of the way fairy tales are told. Fairy tales don’t have a lot of details. Instead, they just tell us what happens. For example:

Drosselmeyer gave Clara a gift. She unwrapped and opened it. Inside was a nutcracker. She picked it up and instantly fell in love. “It’s the most incredible toy ever!” she said.

Yes, that’s Nutcracker, though not the original 1816 short story. But it illustrates the point, so who cares?

As for showing, it’s more detailed. Well, that’s oversimplifying it. Showing can be thought of as painting a picture that engages most or all of the senses, as well as what’s the character’s thinking. From what I can tell, the idea is to give the reader enough detail so that they not only see what’s happening and feel like they’re there, but maybe even feel the emotions or sensations the characters are experiencing. Here’s what I think might be a good example:

Hank’s muscle fibers snapped and tore apart like Twizzler Pull-n-Peels, before retying themselves into new braids. His abdomen heaved and roiled as, underneath the skin, organs shifted, burst like rotten fruit, and formed into new shapes. He could hear his bones cracking as they changed positions, stretched and folded in on themselves. And all over his body, his nerves screamed as his body shrunk in some places, elongated in others, and created new structures alien to his form. His mouth swung open, and what might have been a scream vibrated out of his throat. To his ears, it sounded like a train whistle, and he thought he saw whisps of steam rising into the air from his lips.

That was from no particular story. I just tried to paint a picture. And even writing this, I’m not sure I was successful. On the one hand, I want you to feel Hank’s pain. But on the other, I’m aware that I have only so much space, so I need to get through it one way or another. Balancing here is a difficult feat.

Maybe that’s another thing about showing vs. telling: with short stories and novelettes, you’re more tempted to tell rather than show. After all, with a novel, you have plenty of space to go into full detail with a single moment. To show, in other words. But in a shorter work, you need to economize your words, so you can only show when it really matters. Otherwise, you tell people what happens and give them enough to go on without using too much space.

Hoping I get better at showing vs. telling before this comes out.

In any case, it seems there’s still a lot for me to learn when it comes to knowing when to show and when to tell. Hopefully, with more practice, I’ll get better at distinguishing those moments and then how to show effectively. Perhaps with the next, and longest, story in Hannah, ‘The Autopsy Kid and Doctor Sarah,” I’ll get in plenty of practice.

What tips do you have for showing vs. telling? Leave them down in the comments below.

Please leave them in the comments down below. The more help I have with this, the better Hannah and other future stories will turn out.

Well, that’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll keep you updated on Hannah and any of my other projects. Until next time, good night and pleasant nightmares.

  1. That is a tough one! I can tell you what NOT to do in this case: write anything like Kevin J Anderson. Here are the opening lines of Paul of Dune, one of his MANY McDune books:

    “A serene ocean of sane stretched as far as the eye could see, silent and still, carrying the potential for terrible storms. Arrakis—the sacred world Dune—was becoming the eye of a galactic hurricane, a bloody Jihad that would rage across the planets of the crumbling Imperium. Paul Atreides had foreseen this, and now he had set it in motion. Since the overthrow of Shaddam IV a year ago, millions of converts had joined Paul’s armies in addition to his own Fremen warriors, all of whom had pledged their lives to him. Led by his fanatical Fedaykin and other trusted officers, his holy warriors had already begun to fan out from staging areas, bound for specific star systems and targets…

    “Though Paul sought to reduce and even eliminate the violence, he suspected that the bloody reality would prove far worse than any prescient vision. And his visions had been frightening. Centuries of decadence and mismanagement had filled the Imperium with deadwood—tinder that would allow his firestorm to spread with startling speed. In a more civilized time, problems between Houses had been settled with an old-fashioned War of Assassins, but that solution seemed quaint and gentlemanly now, no longer plausible.”

    See? Not only does he recap things told in previous books with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He gives away the barn on what’s happening. No dialogue, no careful and slow conveyance of details. Just “BAM! Here’s everything that’s going on!”

    • Long time, no see on the blog, Matt! And yeah, that is a lot of information. Feels pretty useless, too. I mean, at this point, shouldn’t I already know what’s happening if I’m reading this book?

  2. Rami, absolutely wonderful explanation of showing versus telling! People always say it, but few actually explain what it means. I love show more, tell when absolutely necessary!

  3. Matt’s example is exactly why I couldn’t get through Dune. I heard a tip that I try to remember: Tell the boring, everyday stuff. Don’t show someone getting out of bed. Just say, “He climbed out of bed.” Don’t show someone locking the front door, walking down the sidewalk, unlocking the car, fastening the seatbelt . . . just say, “She drove to work that morning.”

    And definitely show thematic moments.

  4. This has often befuddled me as well. I’m a very visual person when I write–it’s almost like I’m watching a movie. I like to be immersed in the world, smell the wet dirt, feel the fog kind of thing. I am not sure what the balance is–I think more room needs to be left for individual writing styles.

  5. iCentrist says:

    You give a good example of telling with the nutcracker: Drosselmeyer gave Clara a gift. She unwrapped and opened it. Inside was a nutcracker. She picked it up and instantly fell in love. “It’s the most incredible toy ever!” she said.

    To show it, you would simply allow the character to dictate the action and not the author (which is really what it boils down to. If you, the author, tell your reader what’s happening, that’s merely telling. If however you allow the character to speak to the action that’s showing even if the author is relaying the actions taking place): ‘Clara took the gift from Drosselmeyer with a broad smile. With eager hands, she ripped away the wrapping and gasped seeing the soldier shaped nutcracker within, “Oh wow! It’s the most incredible toy ever!”‘

    It’s a subtle distinction, but in the variation beneath the original, the reader is following Clara as she opens the gift and gasps in surprise whereas in the original we’re merely told that’s what happened. In fact, just by allowing her to express her feelings shows what she is experiencing. The tag ‘she said’ is unnecessary in such a scenario as a result because we, the readers, are already following her excited acceptance of the gift.

    Therefore, the closer you get to the character as the author, the more you engage the reader as you relay what’s transpiring. This is true with regards to whatever tense you’re utilizing in the writing. So when the phrase ‘show don’t tell’ is said, what is really being suggested is let the characters dictate as much of the story as possible as opposed to you, the author. Even if you’re in third person omniscient.

    That’s always how it’s been relayed to me, anyway. It doesn’t have to be over description. Merely an observation closer to the character than the author. Which is why dialogue is very important in every story told.

    • You seem to have a better handle on it than I do. I tried that yesterday editing a story, and it still sounds like telling to me.

      • iCentrist says:

        Just gotta remember to let the descriptions come for your chars. Easier said than done, I know. I’ve been doing this for some quarter century and am still having trouble getting published. Your talent will carry you through. So don’t worry about it so much. You’re making it happen. As such, what do I really know?

      • About this subject, more than me. More than most, even.

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