Thursday, May 28, 2020

When to Tell and Not Show

By Swati Teerdhala, @swatiteerdhala

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Showing and not telling is a core aspect of writing, but sometimes telling is actually better for the story. Swati Teerdhala shares thoughts on when it's okay--and preferable--to tell and not show. 

Swati Teerdhala is the author of the upcoming novel, The Tiger at Midnight, the first in a trilogy. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Finance and History, she tumbled into the marketing side of the technology industry. She’s passionate about many things, including how to make a proper cup of chai, the right ratio of curd-to-crust in a lemon tart, and diverse representation in the stories we tell. She currently lives in New York City and can be found wandering the streets with a pen or camera in hand.

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Take it away Swati…

Swati Teerdhala
One of the most common writing adages is “show, don’t tell”. It’s often used to solve almost any narrative or prose problem, but sometimes it can do more harm than good. Recently, while doing revisions on a new book, I realized that my beginning wasn’t as tight as it could be. A lot of the issues I had with my story's beginning, where I was introducing my characters and my world, was from a lack of clarity. As I dove into figuring out how to solve that problem and flipped through my numerous craft books and notes, I realized something.

Sometimes, it's ok to tell rather than show, especially when it’s actually important to tell your readers the information they need.

Anything that will provide a basis of understanding your story, like who the reigning monarch is and that there are three moons that control magic, can be told. If it’s vital knowledge for the reader to have to understand the world, then it’s important to be as clear as possible about the information. Otherwise, the narrative can become confusing and difficult to follow for readers. In these instances, showing can further muddle the narrative, resulting in confusion for readers. Losing vital information in extended metaphors and half answers only makes the narrative frustrating.

Think about the books you’ve put away because you couldn’t get into the world or were too confused to continue reading. Would some simple telling have solved the issue? Oftentimes, laying the groundwork with a simple summary of the facts can allow your prose to shine.

Other times when telling is more valuable than showing is when you’re introducing smaller characters, when you’re showing the passage of time, and transition scenes.

These instances don’t require as much showing because they’re often not character related or dynamic, but rather show more static parts of the story like backstory. Even with more dynamic story elements, like describing an internal emotional state, showing can be mixed with telling to create a fully realized moment. The beauty of prose is that we can dive into a character’s head and understand them. That’s not something you can do with film or TV shows. It’s something unique to novels and to narrative. There’s power in putting us in a character’s head and looking through their eyes.

Of course, this doesn’t always apply. Character emotions? Show us that. Make us feel every feel and truly understand what the character is going through internally by putting us in that exact moment. Telling us how a character feels can’t evoke the same response and understanding as putting us in the situation alongside them.

(Here's more on Tell Me About it: When Telling is Better Than Showing)

The one caveat with telling is that using it too much can result in a book that is more narrative and summary than a story. Modern fiction tends to be more visual and many readers want to be able to see themselves in the story that is happening. Showing is a great tool for making a story that allows for a reader to dive in.

But as you’re introducing your readers to a new world, some good, old fashioned telling can add clarity and allow your readers to instead spend that time falling in love with your story.

About The Tiger at Midnight

A broken bond. A dying land. A cat-and-mouse game that can only end in bloodshed.

Esha lost everything in the royal coup—and as the legendary rebel known as the Viper, she’s made the guilty pay. Now she’s been tasked with her most important mission to date: taking down the ruthless General Hotha.

Kunal has been a soldier since childhood. His uncle, the general, has ensured that Kunal never strays from the path—even as a part of Kunal longs to join the outside world, which has only been growing more volatile.

When Esha and Kunal’s paths cross one fated night, an impossible chain of events unfolds. Both the Viper and the soldier think they’re calling the shots, but they’re not the only players moving the pieces.

As the bonds that hold their land in order break down and the sins of the past meet the promise of a new future, both the soldier and the rebel must decide where their loyalties lie: with the lives they’ve killed to hold on to or with the love that’s made them dream of something more.

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  1. Thanks for this post. I often feel that I have been beat into submission on the show vs tell issue and seem to go to great lengths to avoid the tell relying on dialogue to do the show part. Another thing I'm wary about is the tell of info dumps which I'm bad at avoiding. So is an info dump always the dreaded tell in a story and how can it be avoided when there seems to be a lot that needs to be conveyed to the reader. Sometimes the dialogue approach just seems too awkward.

  2. I really do appreciate the advice about show v. tell. It seems to me that one person's information dump is another person's vital revealing stuff. I have been retired for many years, and in my reading, I keep running across novels that spend a good amount of space and time providing background information--information that is simply important to the development of the story.

    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a prime example. There is a LOT of backstory and even minutiae within its pages. Without all of that, we would not get nearly as neatly to that moment in the basement. I have had various discussions with those who have tried to argue that the story is over in one scene after the bridge matter. I argue that it is not--that Lisbeth's search for clothes and stuff and what happens after that contributes heavily to the victorious ending of the story. It is the difference between having a hero and having the story sputter out in a weak, typical fashion.

    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels taught me a lot about novel writing.