Monday, December 19, 2011

Tell Me About it: When Telling is Better Than Showing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Last week I had a commenter ask me a question about show vs tell, and since this is one of those things that can be hard to get (because it can be hard to explain) I wanted to go into more detail in a full post. Particularly the angle of when it’s better to tell than show. Because sometimes, telling is better for the story than showing.

First, let’s start with my favorite type of show don’t tell example to provide some context on what show vs tell is:

Bob reached over to turn out the light.

Bob reached over and turned out the light.

You’ll see both written all the time, but “to turn” is telling, because it’s not describing an action, it’s describing the intent to act.

[Bob reached over] you can see this action [to turn out the light.] this is the reason why Bob reaches over. You can’t “see” a reason why.

If Bob is the point of view (POV), then the author is telling you his reasons for acting. If Bob isn’t the POV, then it’s a POV shift, because it’s relaying information the narrator doesn’t have. They can’t know why Bob reaches over. He could be reaching for a pack of cigarettes on the table under the light. Until Bob actually does something more than reach, you don’t know what he’s going to do. If it’s an omniscient narrator, it’s fine because they would know why Bob reached over and they’re letting you know. (See why this is so tricky?)

[Bob reached over] you can see this action and [turned out the light.] you can see this action.

Authors use “to verb” all the time. You’ll see it in popular, bestselling books as well as clunkers no one wants to read. Readers are used to the “to verb” so many don’t even see it. As tells go, it’s not all that bad, but it does make a wonderful example that makes this topic a little easier to understand.

Now, let’s take this a step further. When it is better to tell than to show?

If showing is going to bog the story down or bore the reader.

A great example here is the “catching up another character” scene. Something has happened to one character, and they reach a point where they have to tell someone information the reader has already seen dramatized.

Say Bob has just been out scouting and found a huge next of zombies acting very un-zombielike. Readers have seen the scene, and now Bob is back with the gals and has to tell them what he saw. Which would be better: telling a short summary or explaining the entire scene a reader just read? Explaining it is probably going to bore your reader, so a quick telling summary works great to keep the story moving.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bob said, tossing back half his scotch. He told them about the nest, the freakish way the zombies moved, the almost organized way they worked together. His hands shook by the end of it.

“Wow,” Jane whispered.

He nodded. “Yeah. Wow.”

You tell (in an infodump), but it doesn’t stop the story and it allows you to relay information the reader already knows. And that’s the most important thing to keep in mind when deciding if you should tell or show. Does it help make the story better and keep the reader reading?

You already do a lot of telling in a novel, even if we don’t officially call it that. You describe the setting, what someone does, what they say. It is called storytelling for a reason. The trick is to weave your tells in with your shows so the reader never gets the sense that the author is butting in to explain something to them. Tone matters a great deal, as does voice. Stay in a character’s voice, and you can almost anything and make it work.

A flat descriptive paragraph with lots of details and no real context for it is usually boring. Even more so if it falls in the middle of something interesting going on. It stops the story and makes the reader do the literary equivalent of watching vacation slides. But take that same set of details and add judgment and attitude from the POV’s eyes. Now it’s interesting. It’s not just stuff.
The room was small and overstuffed with items from all over the world. Vases from France, statuettes from Italy, wooden shoes from Holland. A bold, green and red flowered wallpaper covered three of the walls, with the fourth wall a solid matching shade of green. On that wall sat a carved trellis with silk flowers entwined through it. Toy birds perched on the top like bright lights.
Bored yet? This is just bad telling when you really think about it. The author is conveying details as if they were sitting outside the room with a pair of binoculars. But if we told it in a character’s voice…
Chuck gaped. Holy crap, a garage sale threw up in here. Old vases, cheesy statuettes, those dumb clog shoes with the flowers on them. Bad enough every surface had something awful on it, but did she really need that wallpaper? Maybe she didn’t know red and green flowers just screamed “I’m way too into Christmas and need professional help.” And what was with that trellis with the fake vines and cheap plastic birds?
Same details, same "telling" what the room looks like, but now there’s a person there so the details don’t feel so “just telling you what it looks like.”

You certainly want to show as much as you can, but sometimes a little telling is needed. Don’t be afraid to tell when you have to, just make sure that when you do, you’re telling it in a way that serves the story and keeps the reader interested.

How do you feel about the occasional tell? Both in your writing and your reading. When does it become too much? 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I didn't realize "to turn" is telling. I will have to look at my work for too much telling that way and another way to cut words.

    I do agree with you that the occasional tell, like in your example about the zombies, is okay and necessary. It's just hard to find the balance.

    1. I would never have thought of "to turn" as telling. I think of showing-vs.-telling as specific-vs.-general.

  2. Good examples. My setting and people descriptions often start out like super boring tells while I'm figuring out what they look like, and then I figure out what the character notices out of the blurb.

  3. I didn't even know that about to verbs! Makes sense though. I think another time when it's okay to tell is when you need to transition from one place to another. I read a mystery novel once that had me screaming, because it was a great example of 'all show', down to his walks to and from work. I kept expecting to see a clue, or for the murderer to jump out -- something -- because we were being treated to such a detailed scene so my subconscious was expecting something to happen. But nothing ever did during those scenes.

    1. That sounds familiar ☺ And always shivering and trembling to show that they are in any way emotionally affected. Boring...

  4. Thank you, this is such a useful post.

    I've had a hard time distinguishing between the two, and pointing out the "to do" verbs is greatly helpful.

    Also, pointing out how telling can be useful is great, too. I just wrote a scene yesterday in which the main character was catching other characters up on what happened, and I didn't want to go over every detail again.

  5. Most of the time, if you ask yourself "How does the character FEEL about this?" you can get inside his head, and being inside a character's head is showing. I write deep POV, which requires a lot of showing. (Yes, narrative can be telling, and it can move the reader quickly through some of the parts that aren't worth the time of a full scene, so a book can't be ALL show)

    And, as SBibb points out, you never want to tell your reader something they've read already.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. So glad you did this post! A friend of mine and I went through sample chapters of each other's work a few weeks ago and flagged every example of telling.

    Some cases needed to go (like the "to turn off the light" example), but I also found we both did a lot of telling while the character was describing something in their own voice, like your second example. We both figured it was okay because it added to the voice and style of the book.

    I am glad that we seemed to come to the right conclusion, and sometimes telling is better.

    Excellent post!

  7. Wow! This is so great. I wish someone had explained this to me before. I mean, I've heard the show don't tell thing so many times, but it makes sense to break it down to specific verbs. Very helpful. Thank you!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  8. Great post, Janice, and brilliant examples. It's the kind of stuff that authors know intuitively--you know a passage or a scene isn't really working, it's not coming alive for some reason, but you don't know why. This is very useful :)

  9. Wow, I've heard 'show don't tell' so many times it's nice to be told it's ok to tell sometimes. I find that long descriptions are so boring that I generally skip over them. I was interested to see how you livened that up. To tell the truth, I actually skimmed the first example and read the second one in depth just because it was more personal. I must remember that trick.

  10. I think there needs to be a little telling, but the tricky thing is once a writer starts, it is sometimes hard to stop....

    Great post.

  11. Hi Janice, thanks for the enlightening post! I have a question, though. How about show vs tell about the backstory? If two characters had a (sort of) relationship in the past, and now they meet again, do I show or tell the backstory? Or should I just show how their past relationship affect their interaction now, without having to tell the reader the nature of the relationship or show a flashback to that? Oh, and the genre is Romance.

    Thanks a lot!

  12. Eve, I'm not Janice (obviously), but here's my take. With backstory, less is always better. You can imply a lot, first through the way the characters interact in the present, and second through a very few explanatory lines (of description, narration, and/or dialogue) scattered throughout the book. Readers are good at connecting the dots. Flashbacks are almost never necessary, IMHO.

    What you might do instead of a flashback is have the two characters confront each other about their unresolved business in the past -- not at their first meeting, but maybe after their relationship in the present has started to heat up again (or whatever) and they can't deny/bury their past any longer. That way you're still moving the present-day story forward at the same time as you're giving readers more information about the backstory.

  13. Yep, I was cleaning up those "to" phrases in my ms last night. Those sneak in during my first drafts *all the time*. Ugh. :) Great post!

  14. Natalie, there are times when "to verb" is fine (it depends a lot of your narrative distance), but it's one of those things that slips in and we don't even notice it anymore.

    Jaleh, I do that too on first drafts. I'll also put (describe house) and just skip it altogether until revisions. Sometimes I'll reach a later point in the story where the POV has to notice something, and I go back and add it in there.

    Angelaquarles, oh tranistions are a perfect place for tells. Just sum up how they got there--if you even need that!

    SBibb, most welcome. That's why I love that example. It's so simple and clear.

    Terry, great advice for almost everything :) POV fixes so many problems.

    Elizabeth, thanks! Telling is like adverbs. It gets a bad rap, but it can be useful when done well.

    Sarah, most welcome! I love examples. They're so much easier to see and get.

    Guile, this blog has actually been great for figuring out those intuitive things. I'm always on the lookout for blog posts, and I really look at what I do and why I do it now.

    Imogen, I skip descriptions all the time, too. I even dislike writing them :) Give me character over stuff any day.

    Tasha, hehe, this is true. For a first draft that's okay though. Sometimes you need to know how the story unfolds before you can polish it. That's what revisions are for!

    Eve, you might try looking for ways in which your characters can act that convey this. Your POV will probably remember something about the past relationship (Man, she hadn't seen him since he dumped her the night of her big promotion, that rat, or wow, he still looked as sexy as he did in high school), or how they act (they act awkward, make jokes about the past, etc). Think about how two people in that situation would feel and act, then see what would translate to your page.

    Readers pick up on things, so if your characters are acting like past lovers, and you give them a few clues in what the characters say and think, they'll figure it out.

    Flashbacks usually aren't needed, but if there's a lot of info and you feel you need one, save it until you've teased the readers with the truth so that by the time you get to it, they WANT to know what happened. Then it's not just a backstory dump, it's revealing a secret they've been dying to discover.

    Siri, good advice!

    Jami, I even find myself doing it from time to time. :) Usually when I'm on a roll and writing fast.

  15. I've become a faster reader (if not a faster writer, alas!) over the years. Lately I find it extremely annoying to have the action and motivations of characters shown/told in chapter 3, rehashed in chapter 13... and 20... at which point I throw the book against the wall and reach for something else. (Unless it's in my Kindle, then I only toss it figuratively.)

    I am a reader. If I had the attention span of a flea, I wouldn't be reading, I'd wait for the movie to come out.

  16. Another really good thing about the second example on the last piece is we know what we are supposed to feel about the room. In the first telling example, we maybe are supposed to be impressed with the variety of antiques and the fancy lattice. But by doing it from the narrator's POV we realize it's a cheesy junk room (at least according to him) and I don't think that's really telling at all, we are being shown what he sees and what he thinks about it.

    1. Sasha Anderson5/24/2020 3:24 AM

      That's interesting - what I feel about the room from the second example is that Chuck is a jerk...

    2. And he is, which is what that example is trying to show. But if I changed how he sees it, he could come across in any number of ways. Maybe he finds this cute and his love for his grandmother shows through. Maybe he's concerned about his friend's hoarding. The room isn't so much about the room but about Chuck.

    3. Sasha Anderson5/24/2020 12:13 PM

      "The room isn't so much about the room but about Chuck."

      That makes so much sense, thank you!

  17. Sasha Anderson5/23/2020 8:20 PM

    With your example about the room full of stuff, I can see the huge difference between the two ways of writing it, but I can't quite figure out how to apply it to my work...

    In a way, the examples seem too different. In the first version, we had no idea that there was a character like Chuck around, someone who would hate the room and think a ton of judgemental things about its owner. So the second example adds a whole bunch of information. If I have a piece of writing I want to improve, I can't just randomly introduce a Chuck character with a contrasting opinion on what we're seeing, can I?

    I guess what I'd like to know is how you would have written it if it was somewhere between the two - you're still shifting into a character's perspective, but this character likes the room and views it in a more similar way to the original description. So that I have something to aim for when I don't have a character like Chuck!


    1. The principle is the same, because you'll have a character looking at the room no matter who they are (even if it's an omniscient narrator). How they see it will vary depending on who that character is and what they think.

      This example uses a tight narrative distance and point of view, but a more distant or omniscient narrator will still have a "personality" behind it. It's like voice.

      Here's an example with a more distant narrator:

      The small room overflowed with items from all over the world. Vases from France picked up the burgundy and teal flower motif from the wallpaper, displayed against a solid wall of green. Statuettes from Italy sat underneath a flowered trellis made of silk, as if transported to a mountain villa. Wooden shoes from Holland tempted visitors to slip them on and take a stroll. And every item held a memory.

      Still distant, and there's no sense of a clear character here, but it's more than just "what's in the room" There's judgement and opinion behind the words, even without a character. This shows a room kept for a reason, with items chosen to suit its purpose.

      If this came after a paragraph from a character's POV, it would likely feel in that character's head. If this opened the scene, the next paragraph would probably show the character and connect back to this in some way, likely using the "memory" idea.

      Does that help?

    2. Sasha Anderson5/24/2020 12:11 PM

      Yes, that's really helpful, thank you!