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Showing Versus Telling

Versus: The sky is blue.

This question comes up much too often for me not to do a full post on the subject. Showing versus telling. We throw the phrase “show, don’t tell” around in the writing world all the time, and it’s become a bad cliché. But do we writers really know the true definition of show versus tell? Do we ask ourselves, why show? Do we ask ourselves, why not tell? I don’t think many of us do.

Telling means that you outright tell the reader what’s happening. For example, I can tell someone the sky is blue or just show the picture of the blue sky to the left so they can see it. It's the same principle in writing. This is a definition of telling:

She was tired from running.

Showing means instead of directly telling the reader what happened explicitly, you say it by getting the senses across, and the reader still gets the same message. For example:

Her heart continued to pound in her chest when she stopped. She knelt over, holding her knees as she panted, gasping for breath, wanting nothing more than to find the nearest seat and collapse in it.

See? The reader still understands that this person is tired because the feelings are understood. But it’s not outright said.

There’s a common misconception that dialogue is the way to show, but that’s not showing. Showing has to do with action, engaging the senses of the reader, and saying something without saying it. Telling is stating it and both are fin to use in writing even though the first thing a writer will find if they get on a writing forum is “Show. Don’t tell.”

So because it’s so difficult to actually tell what the difference between showing and telling is, I’ll simply show you through these examples

He was nervous as his mother waited expectantly for an explanation.

As opposed to…

He ran a hand through his hair and shuffled his feet back and forth under the expectant gaze of his mother, looking anywhere but the woman’s eyes. If he locked eyes with her, he was screwed.

There ..was no point in lying. He already knew.

As opposed to…

“Well… You see… What it is was….”

He gave her a pointed look.


In the above example I did use dialogue to show what I told in the above sentence in combination with a short sentence and a phrase, but again dialogue doesn’t always mean showing instead of telling. And here’s one more…

She was in complete shock and disbelief.

As opposed to.

Her mouth fell open, face white, hands beginning to tremble. There was no way. It just couldn’t happen. He wasn’t dead! He wasn’t!

These might not be the best examples, but it was the only way I could get it across. Showing has a lot to do with the voice of your novel too. And guess what? It’s perfectly fine to tell. In fact, a blend of both is needed for the novel. When you just want to get the point across, like a slap in the face, telling is the way to go in my opinion. But showing gets the feeling across. I recommend a blend of both. Show to invoke the reader and tell to drive it home. That’s why in school it’s called ‘show and tell.’ Anyway, I hope this was helpful. There are so many questions about this I thought I’d put my opinion on out here and hope it helped someone.

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~Charity~ said...

Great examples! This is definitely an area I struggle with.