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Show vs. Tell: The Eternal Battle

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

One of the earliest axioms new writers hear is “show, don’t tell.” The general idea behind this is that emotion, motivation, plot, setting—all of it should be portrayed rather than informed. Though this mantra makes for fantastic advice, first-timers (and even pros) can run into trouble discerning a show from a tell.

Some of the most common show vs. tell examples pertain to the portrayal of character emotions. Consider the below. Which of the following paints a better picture in your mind?

  • John was mad.
  • John balled his fists.

Both sentences are simple declaratives, yet one shows John’s anger via an action, whereas the other simply states John’s anger. The latter example has a subtlety that the former does not, while still communicating the same idea precisely. Whenever possible, one should strive for the show option, which in this case is “John balled his fists.”

Many early stage writers often have the urge to explain, something Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers discusses thoroughly. I still struggle with this in first drafts, particularly in my dialogue. Consider two examples below.

  • “We have to protect the prime minister,” Carter said with urgency.
  • “Today is the best day ever.” Marcia skipped away with glee.

Both examples avoid the use of adverbs (something we’ll discuss in a future post), but convert what would have been adverbs into verbose and unnecessary commentary (“with urgency”/”with glee”). So how could these be rewritten to show rather than tell readers how these actions are being executed?

  • Carter burst into the room. “We have to protect the prime minister.”
  • “Today is the best day ever.” Marcia skipped away.

The first example now shows the urgency of Carter’s speech through his actions—the manner in which he enters the room. A reasonable reader will fill in the gaps here, reading Carter’s dialogue in a manner consistent with his actions. The second example simply cuts “with glee.” Marcia has just informed us that this is the best day ever, and skipping away is a gleeful action in and of itself. “With glee” was a redundant inclusion, and avoiding this kind of redundancy is one of the many goals we as writers should strive to achieve when doing our work—unless, of course, one plans on making use of it for emphatic or rhythmic reasons.

Beyond emotion, two other areas of note regarding the show vs. tell paradigm pertain to exploring the differences between narrative summary and immediate scenes. Think of any 80s or 90s action movie. There’s always a training montage, right? That sort of montage, or any visual summary to show the passage of time, is the film equivalent of narrative summary. If those films had shown us the full and complete workouts, those would have been immediate scenes.

The natural tendency many starting writers have is to overuse immediate scenes, which can lead to questions like the below.

“You said ‘show, don’t tell,’ right? Shouldn’t I show everything my characters are doing so that readers know what’s going on?”

That’s a well motivated question, but it ignores two critical things about most readers.

  • Most readers are way smarter than we give them credit for.
  • Most readers only care about our characters’ actions insofar as the plot or character development are concerned.

I once heard a story about a writer who insisted on having his main characters eat every couple of chapters so that readers knew they weren’t skipping any meals. Unless our main characters are actively struggling against famine in a survival story where resources are scant, there is little need to reassure readers that our characters are human and have human needs. We should trust them to fill in the gaps, or, when necessary, make use of narrative summary.

When attempting to decide whether to employ narrative summary or to write an immediate scene, refer to the below chart.

If something big is happening, let your readers be there.

Naturally, one could debate what counts as major or minor, but what it really comes down to is this: will a reasonable reader care to see every moment of the scene? If the answer is no, then push it into narrative summary (or cut it altogether). If the answer is yes, then it’s time to (re)write an immediate scene. When answering this question for ourselves, it’s key to remember readers are far more clever and less easily amused than we might think.

One final bit of show-versus-tell editing advice I can offer is to trust your readers to have good memories. Writing a mystery novel? Don’t include a summary of clues at the start or end of every chapter just to make sure readers are logging them. Writing a dystopian survival tale? There’s no need to keep reminding readers that our characters will need to find food to survive. We can make these things apparent through the characters’ actions, and convey pertinent information to readers once and only once. They’ll feel insulted if we keep beating them over the head with the same information.

When writing or going back to edit our own work, it’s critical to favor showing over telling. Though as we’ve seen, there are some moments where narrative-summary-tells can and should be employed.


How do you strike a balance between showing and telling? What are some of your challenges when putting these ideas to work? Reach out to me on Twitter or through the contact page with your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you.

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