Telling vs. Showing, an Explanation

Writers often hear “show us, don’t tell us” in one variation or another. But what does it really mean to show rather than tell?

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary gives the definition of tell as “to relate in detail: narrate, recount,” and show as “to cause or permit to be seen.” As writers, we do both these things.

But as storytellers we must recount our tale in a way that allows the reader to see and feel what our story characters see and feel. We must paint a picture with our words.

Example of telling: Sally could see Cade was very angry with her answer. (this tells us Sally sees and Cade is very angry, but doesn’t show us what Sally sees or what Cade truly feels)

Example of showing: As Cade processed Sally’s answer, she watched in fear as the vein on the left side of his neck began to bulge and pulse with each beat of his heart. Inch by inch his face turned deep red as his rage welled within him. (Now you have shown us what Sally sees and what both Sally and Cade are experiencing/feeling.)

Read each example sentence again. How differently do you see and feel as you read each one? 

Showing provides strong verbs and descriptors that help the reader visualize on the movie screen of his/her mind what is happening. Showing pulls us into the story and we experience–have our own emotional/physical response–what the characters are experiencing.

Telling uses weak verbs (and usually linking verbs with them) and lacks the verbal clues a reader needs to imagine/see the scene. It is flat, black and white writing.

How to Fix Telling vs. Showing

Discovering where your story tells rather than shows isn’t always that easy because we constantly have the scene playing out in our mind as we write.

  • Look for sentences that use verbs with linking verbs (e.g. could see, was angry). The word “was” is often an indicator of telling.
  • Participate in a critique group. They won’t see the same thing you do as they read your scenes.
  • If you don’t have a critique group, put your finished manuscript aside for at least a month or two. When you come back to it can you richly visualize what’s happening or do the scenes seems flat?
  • Ask some friends who are avid readers to read your story and give honest feedback.
  • Be an avid reader yourself. Analyze what you read for telling vs. showing.

Do you have a question about telling vs. showing? Leave your questions in the comments section below. I promise to respond.

Debra L. Butterfield © 2014

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Comments

  1. Great post. The critique group I have been with for 2 years now has been fantastic at pointing out instances of telling and scenes that don’t work.
    It’s scary to put our works out there. But in a good group, they get ripped apart by people who want to see you succeed instead of people who really don’t care.

    • I find I learn so much in critique groups. It’s generally easier to spot errors in someone else’s writing than in one’s own, but eventually that made it possible to begin to see those errors in my writing. Glad you have a great group.

  2. You demonstrated a dramatic difference between telling and showing and gave practical guidelines for fixing what many of us unconsciously do as we write.

    • Donna, it’s very easy to fall into telling, it’s more natural. I’m glad you found the post helpful. Seeing examples always helps me learn better.

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