How Do We Know When to Show vs Tell?

Whirling flames surrounding a shadow.

A well-told story is a combination of showing and telling.

As readers, we want to experience the story through the main character’s eyes, but we don’t want to get bogged down in details we don’t care about.

After all, it’s much easier to skim through to find the more interesting bits.

But we also don’t want to be told why something is happening.

We want to see it happen.

Showing and telling both have their place in a story. So, how do we know which to use?

SHOW THE IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING

You’ll find much of your story should be shown.

Anything that pertains to the story or its plot such as action and character interactions, with each other or the setting, are the most important parts of your story.

They are what will grip your reader’s attention and keep them riveted to the page.

And as such, should be shown in all their glory.

There are three major areas writers tend to tell when they should show:

Motivation, Emotion, and Action

Which would you rather read:

  • Johnny looked angry as the man turned and walked away. It was clear the old man was looking for trouble, and he was about to get it.
  • Johnny looked angry enough to spit teeth. The old man had the nerve to turn his back on him. He clearly didn’t know what he had gotten himself into, but he was about to find out.
  • The old man spat at his feet before turning and walking away. Johnny gritted his teeth and furrowed his brow, the vein in his forehead pulsing so hard it looked ready to explode. His fingers slowly inched toward his gun as his stare threatened to burn a hole in the back of the old man’s head. I could only hope he didn’t decide to use it. The old man had nerve. I’d give him that. But he clearly didn’t know what he had gotten himself into.

The first is clearly being told. There’s no description whatsoever, and it has only the barest of information.

The second is a little better. It provides more information and a little description but still does a lot of telling.

The third is full of description and action.

It’s clear Johnny is angry without ever using the word, we know the motivation is the old man spitting and turning his back on him, and it paints a vivid and interesting picture for the reader.

Telling vital details can kill a story’s tension and cause the reader to miss the important bits when they start to skim.

It’s much more effective to let the reader figure things out for themselves by making sure the reasoning bethind the character’s actions clear and giving plenty of supportive details.

A story is much more boring when it is told.

So, if it’s an important detail, show it. Your readers will thank you for it.

Character and Setting Description

A setting has no purpose if the main characters aren’t interacting with it.

The same goes for background characters.

If they don’t play a part in the story, there’s no reason for them to be there.

We want to see the story through the character’s eyes and experience what they experience, not just add material for the sake of word count.

Describe their surroundings as you would if you were the character, but only include what is relevant at that moment.

It doesn’t mean there’s not more to the setting or character, just that the main characters are focused on other details.

The same settings and characters can always be explored further in detail later if they play an important part in the story.

Not everything needs to be handed to the reader all at once.

In fact, it’s preferred that you don’t, so they remember what they need to follow the story and understand what’s going on and not miss anything important.

Be careful of the usage of adverbs and clichés as they detract from the originality and clarity of the message you want to send to the reader.

In most cases, they serve only as a distraction and add nothing to the story.

Internalization and Dialogue

Nobody thinks about their plans before they do it.

We tend to blurt things out before we’ve fully processed what we need to say.

And when we’re under stress or in a hurry, there’s no time to think things through.

Internalization should always come last in the process.

So, don’t tell us what a character’s going to do or say before they do it.

That just ruins the momentum and suspense.

It’s nothing but repetition meant to bore the reader and is totally unnecessary.

So, don’t do it.

TELL THE UNIMPORTANT AND BORING

A good rule of thumb is to show what’s important and tell what isn’t.

I’m not talking about the pimple on the back of your character’s neck or the color of their shower curtain.

We don’t need to know that.

If it doesn’t have any bearing on the story, don’t mention it.

But the color of your character’s hair or the sock in the corner of the room can be told in passing.

We don’t need a whole lot of detail, just enough to say something about the person or setting.

It’s just not important enough to warrant more than a couple words.

Don’t waste your reader’s time and bog the story down with unimportant details.

Keep their interest and attention on what’s important, and you’ll keep them as readers.

FOR FURTHER READING

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Renea strives to help writers develop the focus and skills they need to finish their first novel, offering writers practical writing advice they can apply one step at a time.

She is the author of Conquering Writing Pressures: Living a Balanced Writing Life in a Busy World where she helps writers find the courage to accept life will never be perfect. And if we want our dreams to succeed, we must fight to make them a reality.

She currently lives in St. Joseph, Missouri, with her husband Joe, her three children, and her five lovable furballs.

From a young age, Renea was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, which she read in the ninth grade.

She is an avid reader, with her main interests residing in history, mythology, and fantasy, along with some romance and science fiction in her earlier years.

When Renea’s not writing, she enjoys genealogy, role-playing games, and dreams of traveling the world. In a past life, she plucked chickens and milked cows.

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One thought on “How Do We Know When to Show vs Tell?

  1. Pingback: How to Flesh Out Our Stories Without Sacrificing Quality – Renea Guenther

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