Showing vs. telling is one of the most common pieces of advice a writer will hear. It’s heard so often that one might think that telling instead of showing is just bad writing. But not so fast! Telling has its place, just like anything in life. The question, when do we show and when do we tell?
In this post, you’ll discover the delicate balance in showing vs. telling, and we’ll explore when to evoke vivid imagery and when to convey information concisely. You’ll learn how to engage readers with immersive storytelling techniques while avoiding unnecessary details. Find out when telling is more efficient than showing, and master the art of making this important editorial choice.
What do we mean by showing and telling?
Russian playwright and author Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This perfectly describes telling versus showing. Telling is matter-of-fact while showing is almost poetic.
With telling, we essentially recount the sequence of events that make up our story:
The abandoned old house was pretty creepy. She got quite a fright when she came upon the kitten.
With showing, we paint a picture:
She gingerly pushed the door open. “Squeeeeeak.” She took a deep breath–This is the stupidest thing I’ve done in a long time–and felt her foot touching down on a layer of unopened mail, dust and God knows what else. Something squishy. She kept moving, suppressing the urge to let the tickle in her nose turn into a full-blown sneeze. In the darkness, shapes gradually turned into objects: a sofa, an armchair, a cupboard. The wispy tatters of what used to be a lace curtain fluttered in front of a window broken long ago. The hair on her arms stood up. Was it cold in here? Not a sound except the dum-dum, dum-dum of her heartbeat. And then, a thump and a “Meow!” For a moment she felt the world spin. “What the …!”
Showing draws the reader right into the action and evokes an emotional response. This is why it’s such a great technique to use in storytelling. But it’s not always the right technique. Showing vs telling requires some editorial decision making.
Is showing always better than telling?
Of course you want the reader to keep reading, but showing isn’t the be-all and end-all in writing. In fact, if you focus on always showing, you risk getting lost in unnecessary details. You might spend pages on a beautiful description of a dog running through a meadow, only for the reader to get to the end of the book and wonder what happened to the dog, since it was never mentioned again after that scene. And they get so stuck on their confusion about the dog that they completely miss the tragedy of the lovers whose story you were actually telling.
The trick is to know when to show and when to tell.
When is telling better than showing?
Sometimes the reader doesn’t actually care about the glint of light on broken glass; it’s sufficient for them to know that the moon was shining. To know when to tell rather than show, think about what part telling plays in writing: It gives the reader a concise summary of what they need to know, without letting them have to draw their own conclusions. It gets to the point.
So, telling is more efficient when you want to move the story along. With telling, you can emphasize what you want the reader to notice, so that they don’t get bogged down by details that aren’t actually important to the narrative. In showing vs telling, telling wins out in the following situations:
- Transition scenes
Most stories don’t take place in one place, at one time. They take place in different settings over a period of time. Telling is a great technique to use in transition scenes, when you move the action from one location and time to another.
It is very efficient to convey the passage of time, for instance. However, while it can be completely fine to simply say, “Fifteen years later,” telling doesn’t have to be bland. For instance:
A year went by. And then another. And another. The kitten had become a cat. The cat had become less agile, had become more content to just spend its days curled up on the armchair by the window. It had been fifteen years since she moved into this old house when, one sunny morning in the fall, the cat suddenly lifted it head, leapt to the floor, ran to the door and let out a low growl.
- The mundane
The details of everyday life aren’t always that interesting, not even when it’s the everyday life of your protagonist. They probably get up every morning, get ready, and make the commute to work. So, it’s perfectly fine to just say, “He got up and went to work.” In this case, telling emerges as the clear winner in the debate between showing vs telling
- Repeated scenes
When a similar version of the same scene repeats, describing each one in detail will quickly make your reader lose interest. This is when the answer to showing vs telling becomes clear.
It’s only when something different happens that it becomes of interest to the story. This is when you can switch from, “He got up and went to work,” to a more detailed description that veers towards showing. For example:
This morning, like every Monday to Friday morning for the past five years, the alarm went off at 6:00. As usual, he pressed the snooze button and, when the beeping indicated that ten minutes had passed, he finally got up and stumbled to the bathroom. As always, he showered and shaved and brushed his teeth, had a cup of coffee and two slices of toast with jam, locked the door as he left the house, walked to the station and waited to get onto the 8:15 train into town. But this morning the 8:15 train didn’t arrive.
This tells the reader that something important is about to happen, piquing their interest. And to keep that interest, you switch to showing.
Did this help you understand when to use showing vs telling? Did anything surprise you? Leave a note in the comments!
Continue a deep dive into showing vs telling with last week’s podcast episode featuring Amie McCracken and Marie Beswick Arthur.