Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Editor's View: Show Vs Tell

Monday, I touched on emotional impact in your writing. Today, I wanted to share an article on showing and telling written by a friend of mine, Beth Hill, who is both writer and a highly skilled fiction editor. 

Sounds easy doesn't it? It always reminds me of Fridays in grade school. We had show and tell. It was always fun because you never knew who would pull out what for our show in tell.

Invariably one of the boys would come to the front of the class and tell us they had a critter of some sort, but it had gotten away. Our teacher's rule was simple. You still had to talk. So if Jonny lost the frog then it was up to him to tell us about it. That wasn't quite as exciting as the frog. Who cared if it could jump six feet and was sorta green with a pointy nose. We didn't want to hear the description; we wanted to SEE the frog (unless you were one of those silly squealing girls). 

This is the same with storytelling. We don't want to hear/read the description, beautiful though it might be, we want the action. See the greenish frog and pointy nose. We want to see the little suckers on its toes and hear the sound it makes, not have Jonny TELL us.

Show and tell is a hard concept to master. We often get showing confused with describing. Not quite the same thing, as Beth explains.


 Fiction writers are hammered with the admonition to show and not tell.

Writing teachers pound it into us. Books on writing repeat it until we feel we've been beaten. And if we're brave enough to put our work in front of our peers for review, we are pounded yet again—Show, Don’t Tell, our critics intone.

Great. I’ve already added 10 more adjectives per page. Isn’t that enough showing? I can only paint the night sky so many shades of lavender and violet.

Here is the doorway if not the key for many new writers—showing is not the same as description. A writer may paint a clear and colorful scene but still be telling rather than showing.

Telling forces a reader to stand outside a candy store window, able to see, perhaps, and hear what happens inside. But he remains outside. Yet when a writer shows, he invites the reader into the store to taste the bite of bitter chocolate or the tang of a lemon drop. The reader will feel the stretch in taffy; maybe even become mired in a mess of spilled molasses.
  • Telling is impersonal 
Showing is intimate
  • Telling is aloof 
Showing is up close
  • Telling is an essay about a vacation trip 
Showing is going on the trip

 Telling is often a simple recitation of he did, she was, I felt. Too much of this and the reader loses interest

 An example: 
  • Marie walked into the room. She looked at the blue walls and the torn curtains at the window. She was afraid. In the sink were a rusted pot and two dirty glasses. The room made her feel both anxious and nostalgic. 
Marie stepped into the kitchen, faltering at seeing the deep blue murals on the walls and ceiling. She shivered. The dark color absorbed the morning sunshine that filtered through frayed curtains.
Drawn to the sweet odor rising from the sink, she stepped close. She ran a finger over the porcelain. Still smooth after all these years.
“Damn!” Marie yanked her hand out of the sink. She picked at the Teflon flakes embedded in her index finger.
“Stupid, rusted frying pan.”
Both offer nearly the same information. Yet the mood created, the intimacy level, differs.

If you find yourself skipping long sections of a novel, chances are those passages are all tell and no show—you’ve not been invited in, so you pass over the text.

In your own writing, look for clues in words and phrases: Use of is and was and were, especially there is, there was, and there were; has, had, felt, and thought; uses of always (I always ate ice cream after a good murder); use of and then or used to.

Such words and phrases are not always inappropriate, but their use or overuse warrants a second look.

Is there a use for telling in fiction? Of course! Declarative phrases can be powerful when used appropriately.
  • Use telling narrative summary at the beginning of a scene to indicate a new setting or the passage of time.
  • Tell in brief spurts to shock the reader, to make a phrase stand out, or to bring a scene to a sudden and complete stop. This can be particularly effective when a brief sentence is used as a paragraph.
    •  I froze when I saw the gun in his hand. 
  • Telling can work well as a throwaway tagline for the end of a chapter.
    • The clock began its ominous tolling. 
And sometimes you can use telling to change the tone or to reveal character. Think private detectives who recite every detail of a new client’s appearance—her long legs were. . . ; her slit skirt fell just below her. . . ; her tear-filled eyes blinked. . .

Such a section, usually brief, is used to slow the pace of a suspense or murder story and to allow the P.I. to show off his smart mouth.

If you must include long stretches of telling (and must you?), break them up with dialogue or thoughts, or vary the sentence length.
  •  Show to engage the reader. 
  • Tell to impart information or stop the story. 
Show and Tell. Use both. And use them well.

If you have any questions for Beth, she'll be glad to answer them.


I love the written word, the ability we have to create worlds and emotions with well-chosen phrases. It’s my intention to share tips and insights and encouragement with writers at all levels, to help you craft stories that will entertain and satisfy your readers. That will help satisfy you as writer as well.

I am both writer and editor. My editing focus is on long fiction, primarily novels. I also mentor beginning writers.
Beth has many articles on writing craft on her webiste and she covers craft and other subjects on her blog:


Jo said...

Not being a writer these are interesting articles nevertheless.

Jo said...

I meant to add, I don't think we ever had show and tell when I was at school in the UK, mind you that's a long time ago.

readwriteandedit said...

Sia, thanks for inviting me back. I'll check in during the day to see if anyone has questions.

Your frog illustration is wonderful. We do want to see the frog in all his frog finery. We want to hear him and see how high he hops.

Kat Sheridan said...

Beth, I LOVE the writing lessons you provide, and the examples are especially useful! A fellow suspense writer was kvethcing the other day about a passage of "telling" in a book she was reading, until she realized that in suspense, telling is used exactly as you pointed out--to slow the pace and amp up the tension so the reader is panting to see what happens next.

Another thing, in your detective example, these phrases were usually followed by a really socko simile, to offset the telling. For example, "Her skirt fell just below her knees, like a nun on her best behavior, but the strappy sandals with the four inch heels told a different story."

welcome to my world of poetry said...

A good writing lesson, most enjoyable.

Thanks for your visit, the bird in my post is Robin not thrush.,


Anonymous said...

Beth, this post quickly cuts to the chase in demonstrating how to inject life into dry prose.

Kat, I love your example. The hard-boiled PI definitely needs to notice these details. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Yvonne, thanks for letting me know. I wondered but it was so little--or at least it looked little. :-)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Kat, you're right. I just hadn't thought of that until you mentioned it. Spencer, in Robert B Parker's books do that too and not just with women.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

Hi again thanks for the re-visit.
We here in the Uk seem to have small Robins, but I do envy you in the US in visiting I saw Blue Birds for the first time, they are so beautiful.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Beth, Showing and Telling is something I'm working on. I loved the point that we often mistake description for showing

I did. Now I know the difference between showing the setting and showing the action. I have to think in first person for that. But that little trick seems to help.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Now I have a question for you. Inciting incident. Where is it employed, in your opinion?

Me and terms, lol!

But I get the feeling it comes a bit later in the story and not in the opening chapter?

I need to look at your archives and see what you have on that.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Yvonne, they are. I have several pairs here on the ranch. I'm trying to get my son to make me some bird houses for them. He's 16 and has discovered girls. Bird houses aren't as high on the list as girls, doncha know?

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks for the clear definition of showing!! Bookmarking this page right now.

readwriteandedit said...

Spenser does exactly that, Sia and Kat. And it's so good. That use of telling is perfect for a particular type of story and a certain kind of character.

I don't have a full article on inciting incident, Sia, but here are a few thoughts.

There are two (at least) ideas about inciting incident.

The first says the inciting incident is the action in chapter one that gets the reader involved in the story. Something happens, something unusual for the protagonist, that catches the reader's eye.

The other definition of inciting incident comes from the more formal study of story structure. This says the inciting incident is the moment when the protagonist sets off on his journey, compelled by something that's happened to challenge him or his beliefs. It's the moment his life is changed. He can't help but act on what has happened and/or on what he now believes.

The first type of incident belongs in your first chapter, very close to the story's beginning. The second type happens somewhere in the first act of your (3-act) story. Some argue for the mid-point of the first act while others suggest it should come closer to the end of the first act.

What's important for the second use of inciting incident is that you must have first shown what is normal for the protagonist. To know how the character is different, you must first show who he is before this incident causes him to change.

Both type of incidents propel the story forward. They get the story engine running or turn up the heat. They pull, push, or drag your protagonist into his adventure.

I'd love to read what others have to say about inciting incident.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sia and Beth .. thanks for this information - I must come back and read the comments .. I'll pick it up in my Reader later on .. Showing and Telling & you've set the two out so simply ... I just need another read! Cheers Hilary

VA said...

Awesome. Of course, I'm wondering if I have fakey descriptions or if I'm truly showing. The simple thing is that showing allows the reader to draw their own conclusions from the observations.

L'Aussie said...

This was great. I've copied it for future reference. Love this topic. It is too easy to slip into telling mode but the story is so much better when we show.

Thanks for visiting Eire.


L'Aussie Travel Blog A - Z Challenge

Sarah Allan said...

Hello, Sia and Beth! What a great article. I try my hardest to show and not tell when I write, and I'll often catch even more to fix when I go through it in the editing process. You're completely right in that showing has a much greater impact on the reader than just telling them what's happening. When you "show," they get to experience it with the characters.
xoxo Sarah

readwriteandedit said...

Good to see everyone here.

VA, you hit it with the words, "drawing their own conclusions." That's the true key to showing.

But we still appreciate telling. As long as it's used in the right way.

Denise, I'm with you on loving this topic. It's a favorite of mine too.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Don't forget to check out Beth's Website, Read Write and Edit. She has all sorts of craft tips.

The good thing you'll notice about Beth's presentation of craft issues is she keeps the explanations simple and and easy to understand. Plus, she usually gives examples. That always helps us with getting the point.

readwriteandedit said...

Whispering to Sia, the blog is The Editor's Blog and the web site is A Novel Edit

Jill Lynn said...

You always explain these things wonderfully, Beth. I read your examples and think "I get it. I get it."

Helen Ginger said...

Great lesson. Well worth practicing and remembering!

Anonymous said...

Good article, and good stuff in the comments!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Sorry Beth. sheesh. I have the website listed in the article and I call it something different in the comments. Thanks for putting the links in the comments.

Clarissa Draper said...

When I first started writing, I didn't even know the concept of show versus tell. I had a lot to learn. Even now, I have to add more 'show' bits during edits.

Talli Roland said...

This is a fantastic post. The funny thing about show vs tell is that it's so easy to spot in every piece of writing but your own!

readwriteandedit said...

Talli, isn't it funny that we can see telling so much easier in the works of others? But once we start looking for it in our own writing, we start to see passages that need to be shown rather than reported.

Clarissa, I'm guessing that many writers use edits and rewrites to bolster showing.

Dana Fredsti said...

I'm still learning show versus tell too, and how much easier it is to think you're showing versus telling when writing in first person... but that it's not necessarily the case!