Show don’t tell is one of the most abused pieces of writing advice. Although both showing and telling in narration are important, knowing when to use which (and what makes explicit telling less effective in some cases) helps.
Here are tips for balancing general and specific detail in your narration:
Why do people say ‘show, don’t tell’?
We might say a writer is ‘telling’ if they say ‘Sarah felt angry’ without further description. Instead, they could write:
Writing that ‘tells’ typically lacks visual, descriptive specificity. It’s often general, painting in broad but vague strokes. It describes abstracts, such as telling us characters’ emotions, rather than showing us ‘anger’ through angry words, gestures, and actions.
‘Sarah slammed the door and leaned against it, trying to slow her breathing.’
Telling readers about characters’ feelings or surrounds by showing them through visual description is often more effective because:
- It brings readers close to the action: Your reader can empathize, experiencing what characters do, in the moment
- It’s specific: Instead of just knowing a character ‘is angry’, we can see the specific way a character expresses (or bottles) said anger. Accumulating, subtler details of showing gather to create characterization over the course of a story
- It adds tone and mood through word choice: How you describe a scene when showing can build mood and emotion. For example ‘Sarah stared at the ugly faded wallpaper, and the crack snaking up from the door from repeat slammings’. The choice of the words ‘ugly’ and ‘snaking’ here suggest the character’s negative frame of mind
Keep a place for telling, too
Despite the above points, telling has its place too. In her essay ‘On Rules of Writing,’ Ursula K. Le Guin writes:
‘Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.’
Simple, telling exposition is useful when:
- You need to describe plot points relevant to the action that don’t need their own scenes.
- You want to introduce general information or mix the general with the specific.
For example, for the first point, you might want to introduce a background plot point – childhood friends building a tree house, for example:
‘That summer, we worked on the treehouse religiously.’
You might not need to show characters carrying planks; hammering in nails. This telling example gives context minus details that don’t actively drive your plot. It sets the stage for other summer scenes that do the main showing and developing of plot detail.
As for mixing telling with showing, you might want to start with a general situation, then get more specific:
‘Sarah was angry [general]. Slamming the door with a scowl, she turned to look at the ugly wallpaper. Her eyes traced a peeling patch to the crack snaking up from the door frame – a telltale sign this wasn’t a rarity during exam season [specific].’
1. Use telling to set up key events in your story
One place where telling is indeed useful is at the start of a book, chapter or scene.
Launching straight into action, dialogue or scene setting are equally valid ways to start. Yet giving your reader the general sweep of events about to unfold (or events leading to your main action) gives a frame of reference. This story exposition gives the reader a sense of the main co-ordinates of your story.
For example, Ursula K. Le Guin begins her Sci-fi classic The Left Hand of Darkness thus:
‘I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.’
Here, Le Guin’s main character, Genly Ai, is compiling a report on his mission to convince inhabitants of another world to join a coalition of worlds, the Ekumen. The telling is relevant to the character’s current actions.
The phrase ‘I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination’ is telling. We don’t see this lesson being taught in action. Instead we read the general sweep of an idea the character was taught in childhood.
Le Guin will show, as the story unfolds, how her main character must use his imagination to understand the Gethenians, the race he must persuade to join the Ekumen.
Although the opening explicitly tells us about a general childhood experience, it also implicitly shows context for the events of the story. We can infer from this opening Genly is investigating something (due to the mention of a report). We can also infer that there are past experiences that will prove relevant to Genly’s investigation.
2. Tell to speed up time and narrate unimportant transitions
Telling is also useful when you need to get characters from setting A to B, without anything eventful taking place during this passage. Think of a play – from act to act, the curtain might fall while stagehands change the backdrop. You’re the stagehand of your story and sometimes ‘telling’ is the quickest, easiest way to change the scenery.
For example, if you want to speed up characters’ passage towards an important city:
‘It took them three days by horseback to reach the border.’
Even better, you could use your telling scene transition itself to introduce a complication or threat that adds a note of suspense or tension, for example:
‘It took them three days by horseback to reach the border. Supplies ran low and they could not afford more delays.’
‘Shrinking’ time this way is a useful device for avoiding scenes that could make your story’s pace drag. Here, telling helps you bend time so that you keep expansive, showing scenes for moments of discovery, tension, conflict or humour.
3. Mix showing and telling to add tone and mood
What if we add a little bit of showing to the telling scene transition above, to create a more intricate sense of characters’ situation at this point?
One way you could use additional showing is to create a more challenging landscape, for example:
‘It took them three days by horseback to reach the border. The going would only get harder now, as dirt roads through grassy fields gave way to a relentless pricking and scratching undergrowth that would only slow their progress.’
Alternatively, you could add showing to suggest how travelling together is affecting your characters’ relationships:
‘It took them three days by horseback to reach the border. Judith’s constant frown had deepened by the day, etched deeper still since her and Elizabeth’s disagreement over rations on the second day.’
In each of these examples, a little bit of showing mixed in with telling makes the transition suggest impending challenges or conflicts. Each use aids story or character development.
4. Cut filter words that signal ‘bad’ telling
It’s easy to use effective or ineffective examples of both telling and showing. One way to eliminate the ‘bad’ kind of telling is to edit out filter words and phrases when you revise.
What are ‘filter words’? They’re words such as ‘that’. For example ‘She felt that she was losing control, as she downed another shot at the bar.’
This isn’t terrible, but it does have a slight distancing effect. Because the word ‘that’ shows the author’s presence. It suggests the author casting around for a feeling. In our minds, while writing, we might ask ‘what does the character feel in this situation?’ We might answer, ‘She feels that she’s losing control.’ Yet we can then phrase this to give the character’s feeling directly:
‘She’s losing control. But she doesn’t care. She slings another shot back and slams the glass back down on the neon-lit counter. The barman stops shining a glass, gives her a sidelong look that says, ‘You break it, you buy it, lady.’
Here again there’s a balance between the telling and showing. The first short sentence tells what’s happening in the scene, and the rest substantiates with detail, adding movement, characterization, and colour.
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