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Why “Show, Don’t Tell” is Only Half Right

Why "show, don't tell" is only half right.

You’ve heard it 1,000 times before: Show, don’t tell.

But what does it mean? How precisely do you show and tell in a novel? Is it even a good rule?

This article will reveal all. We’ll start with…

What Is Showing?

Showing means writing fiction so that the readers feel like they’re there, experiencing the events for themselves.

The wind blows and the readers feel it on their skin. The character gets embarrassed and the readers blush with them. A shot is fired and they flinch.

In short, showing is all about involving the readers.

If the narrator tells the readers that a character is repellent, they only have the narrator’s word for it. But if the narrator shows them the character’s pockmarked face and the smell of stale vomit on their breath, the readers are truly repelled. Just like you are now.

Take a look at this sentence. It’s pure telling…

Pencarrick was a quaint English fishing village where the pace of life was very slow.

Here’s how I actually wrote it (or showed it) in a novel I’m working on…

Beth loved Pencarrick. She loved the twisting streets and the impossibly narrow lanes, where two cars moving in the opposite direction was all it took for gridlock. She loved how the white-washed fishermen’s cottages didn’t share a straight line between them. And how they huddled together on the hillside against the worst of the Atlantic storms. She loved the salt in the air and that strange blueness in the light, and she loved falling asleep to the sound of breaking waves. Most of all, Beth loved how everything in Pencarrick took just as long as it took, as though the passing of time was measured not in hours and minutes but by the lazy turnings of the tide.

What Is Telling?

Telling is the exact opposite of showing. If showing is characterized by evocative details and sensory impressions, telling remains stubbornly lifeless. The readers will find it impossible to experience the people and places and events in any meaningful way. Why? Because you, the storyteller, give them virtually nothing to respond to…

  • You tell them that a character is handsome. But how are they handsome?
  • You tell them that a sunset is breathtaking. But in what way does it take the breath away?
  • You tell them that a character is miserable. But you’ve failed to demonstrate their misery.

The Trouble With “Show, Don’t Tell”

On the face of it, then, “Show, don’t tell” seems like pretty good advice. But here’s the thing…

Telling is concise. Telling allows the novelist to say in a very small space what it would take many paragraphs (or many pages) to say if they showed everything.

So while it’s true that “Show, don’t tell” is a good rule of thumb, it’s only good for half the time. For the other half, “Tell, don’t show” is much better advice.

Think of it this way. Taken to its logical extreme, you could tell a novel in a sentence or two…

Once upon a time, a boy met a girl and decided to win her heart. Their courtship didn’t go smoothly, but they eventually fell in love and lived happily ever after.

And that’s it. End of story.

At the Opposite Extreme…

Showing this novel could take billions of words. The opening scene alone, when the boy first lays eyes on the girl, could take something the size of War and Peace if you…

  • Account for every single second of time.
  • Include detailed descriptions of everything the boy sees and hears and smells and tastes and touches.
  • Write about every thought that passes through his head and every memory that’s triggered.

If you want to write a novel that falls somewhere between these two extremes (and I’m guessing you do if you plan to get published), showing and telling are the tools you’ll use to create a conventionally-sized story.

An Example

Let’s say that your novel takes place over one year.

The first thing you can do to bring the word count down to a reasonable level is to leave out a lot of stuff altogether.

Don’t include unnecessary characters and pointless subplots. And if nothing important or interesting happens in March and April, you can cover it with a simple “Two months later.” Think of that as extreme telling.

Of the important events that you decide to keep, some will be more important than others.

Some events will be exciting and crucial to the plot. These are the moments you want to show in the form of dramatized scenes.

Other events, or parts of events, will be necessary but a little on the dull side. These you can tell.

The events that you decide to show will account for only a tiny fraction of the one-year time span. But they’ll probably account for the bulk of the words in your novel. The majority of the one-year span will be told in a relatively small number of words.

Using Showing and Telling to Handle the Passage of Time

This is a fairly obvious point, based on what I’ve said above, but it’s worth underlining.

If a 100,000 word novel can cover the events of a single day or an entire century (and it can), the technique that you use to deal with the passing of all that time is telling.

Let’s say that this 100,000 word novel consists of 30 scenes. In a novel covering just one day, all the scenes take place within a 24 hour time frame. But in the 100-year novel, the scenes are spread out over a century.

The one-day novel won’t have to account for the passing of much time at all in between the scenes. The 100-year novel will. In either case, telling gets you from one scene to the next in a very economical way.

The only caveat is that the “telling” parts in the 100-year novel will need to be longer.

It’s fine to write “Two hours later” in a novel without accounting for what happened during those two hours.

If two years or two decades pass, the reader will expect at least a few paragraphs telling them the essentials of what happened during that period.

Fifteen Years

A novel I admire for the way the author handles the passage of time is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. One of the chapters is called “Fifteen Years.” Here are three brief extracts from it.

For fifteen years they were a couple: Lorna and Melony. They were set in their ways. Once the young rebels of the women-only boardinghouse, they now occupied the choicest rooms.

For fifteen years, the board of trustees had tried and failed to replace Dr. Larch; they couldn’t find anyone who wanted the job.

For fifteen years, Homer Wells had taken responsibility for the writing and the posting of the cider house rules. Every year, it was the last thing he attached to the wall after the fresh coat of paint had dried.

The chapter goes into much more detail than that. But it gives you the idea of the technique Irving used to move the reader from one period of time to the next in a relatively short space, just giving enough information along the way about what happens to the characters.

Degrees of Telling and Showing

It’s important to understand that telling and showing sit on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is extreme telling. We’ve already seen an example of that…

Two months later…

Move a short way along the spectrum and you’ll tell the reader a little more about those two months…

For the next two months, life returned to normal. Travis went back to work and forgot about the girl. He spent his evenings in the bar with his friends and went on motorcycle trips again on the weekends. The day after his twenty-fifth birthday, he saw her again…

Keep moving along the spectrum and that short paragraph becomes a longer one. Then several long paragraphs. Then an entire chapter as you approach the middle of the spectrum.

The remainder of the spectrum is the “showing” half. How far you move along this spectrum for a particular scene depends on how important the scene is within the overall story.

  • A scene of medium importance? You might give it 5-10 pages.
  • The most important scene in the entire story? Go to town and give it 15-20 pages.

That assumes, of course, that each scene has a similar amount of “raw material” (action, dialogue, etc.). The point is that you can make each one shorter or longer based on how “fully” (or not) you show the events.

Another Example

You could write about a character eating lunch in a single sentence…

Jane grabbed a quick sandwich for lunch and was back at work by two.

That’s obviously telling. Showing her eating lunch might look something like this…

Jane bought a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich in Frank’s Deli and took it to her favorite bench in the harbor. The bread was a little stale, she thought, but the filling was good. She ate it in small mouthfuls, taking her time, and fed the leftover crusts to the hovering seagulls.

I won’t demonstrate what showing on the more extreme end of the spectrum looks like, because it could potentially run on for pages. You’d simply give a lot more space to everything that the character does and says and sees and thinks about.

Why is it important to understand all that? Because it gives you another tool in your writer’s toolkit.

You use showing and telling to both home-in on the important parts of your story and deal with the rest in relatively few words. And you use degrees of showing and telling to fine-tune this approach.

Showing and Telling in Practice

Most of your novel should be written in “showing” mode. You use “telling” mode to skip through the in-between parts in an economical fashion.

Which parts, specifically, should be shown and which told?

In the section on plotting your novel, I talk about scenes (where the action happens) and what I call interludes (the slower in-between parts). Broadly speaking, you show scenes and tell interludes. But only broadly. In reality, there will be…

  • Parts of scenes that you want to tell.
  • Parts of interludes that you want to show.

Scenes can become bloated and heavy-going if they’re all “show” and no “tell.” Sometimes the reader doesn’t want a two-page description of a shy character trying to get up the nerve to enter a delicatessen shop. Half a page would be quite enough.

So you could begin the chapter with a paragraph or two of telling…

Jack Stratton was a shy man, particularly around women. But when he loved the woman, like Rita Jones from the delicatessen’s, his shyness paralyzed him.

He had stood outside the shop for almost an hour, shivering in the rain and searching in the puddles for the courage to enter. It was only now, five minutes before closing, that he finally found the nerve to step inside.

Once he’s inside, you can launch into a regular scene, showing everything that happens as Jack and Rita meet.

If you’d started the scene an hour earlier, when Jack first turned up at the shop, the first part of the scene would have dragged. By reducing this part of the scene to a couple of sentences of telling, you’ve neatly avoided a potentially dull few pages in your novel.

More Ways to Condense a Scene by Telling

You can fast-forward through any dull bits in a scene. Say you are writing a scene set in a restaurant. And say that the scene threatens to drag on and on. You could…

  • Show the conversation as the characters eat their starters.
  • Get the main course out the way with a brief paragraph of telling.
  • Switch back to showing when the desserts arrive and the conversation heats up again.

Another way is to condense any long speeches to a line or two. Say in the restaurant scene a character has to explain why he is late. It’s a complicated story and might take up a page or more. And it really isn’t that important. So you could reduce it to a couple of lines by saying something like…

Fred took his seat and told Martha he was so sorry for being late. Over martinis, he explained how the taxi driver had taken the wrong turn and…

With Interludes, You Have the Opposite Problem

Instead of becoming bloated like scenes, interludes can become clinical and unsatisfying. Of course, clinical is sometimes precisely what you want. Sometimes a “Two days later” is all you need to get from one scene to the next.

More often, interludes are important for demonstrating how a character reacts emotionally to what has just happened. And how they prepare for whatever comes next.

Let’s say your character has just had a fight with his wife and she threw him out. In the interlude, you describe him driving to the nearest bar to drown his sorrows.

Frank drove to The Horseshoe and took a seat at the bar. It took six large vodkas before his heart stopped pounding.

That’s pure telling. Getting him from the previous scene to the next one using the minimum of words is sometimes the right thing to do.

But this interlude might be more satisfying if you include a few snippets of shown dialogue – between Frank and the waitress, say – just to put a little meat on the bones of the interlude and make it a richer experience for the novel’s readers.

Bottom Line?

It’s too simplistic to say that scenes are “shown” and interludes are “told.” In practice, all scenes contain a little telling (to skip through the dull bits). And all interludes contain a little showing (to make them more engaging).

James N. Frey wrote about this well in How to Write a Damn Good Novel. He said there were three ways to write: dramatic narrative (what I call interludes), scenes (what I call, um, scenes) and half-scenes. He defines them like this…

In dramatic narrative, the narrator relates actions but does so in a summary fashion.

In a scene, the narrator describes actions as they happened.

A half-scene is a dramatic narrative interrupted, blended with parts of scene.

Frey doesn’t make this point, but he should have added this…

A half-scene is also a scene interrupted, blended with parts of dramatic narrative.

Showing, Telling & the Five Types of Writing

Okay, that’s covered the fundamentals of showing and telling. Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of precisely how to show and tell.

In another article, I cover the 5 types of writing. These are the “building blocks” from which fiction is made…

  • Action (what happens).
  • Description (how things look, smell, taste, etc.).
  • Dialogue (what the characters say).
  • Monologue (what the characters think).
  • Exposition (any necessary explanation).

What’s that got to do with “show, don’t tell”? Well, each of the blocks can each be used in either “showing” mode or “telling” mode. Here’s how…

1. Action

The difference between shown action and told action is the difference between something you could film for a movie and something you couldn’t.

With shown action, you write down what the character does in real time…

Stephen climbed the stairs and opened the door to their bedroom. Betty was still sleeping and he was careful not to make a sound as he made his way around to his side of the bed and opened the top drawer of his night table.

You could grab a movie camera and film that, right? But you couldn’t film the following, which is told action…

Jane had a quick breakfast, dropped her son off at school and drove to work.

Sure, you could maybe film it as a series of vignettes, then cobble them together in the editing room. But you couldn’t shoot it as a short, continuous sequence.

Bottom line? Your important scenes should consist of shown action. Told action is perfect for those parts of the story where you need to zip through time to get to the next exciting section.

If you’re unsure of the difference between the two, just ask yourself if you could film the action in a continuous sequence.

2. Description

Description is best used in “showing” mode 9 times out of 10. Anton Chekov had it right when he said this…

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Read that quote again. It sums up perfectly the difference between shown description and told description.

Told description doesn’t appeal to the readers’ senses. And it doesn’t use figurative language. It merely states something factual…

  • The moon was shining brightly.
  • Fred was an ugly man.
  • It was a beautiful day.

All of these descriptions rely on the reader to supply the details. We all know what a “beautiful day” looks like (though it will be different for each of us). So we’re at least able to picture something when the writer tells us that the day is beautiful. It’s just not very engaging.

Shown Description

Here’s how it looks when you show…

Even at seven o’clock, it was already warm enough outside to eat breakfast on the lawn. Delia settled back in her favorite chair and felt the air wrap itself around her like water in a warm bath. She took a sip of coffee and looked up at the sun with her eyes screwed shut. The only sounds were the breeze rustling the oak leaves and an early bumblebee foraging in the lavender bush beside her.

Much better than “it was a beautiful day,” right? But that’s not to say that told description has no place in a novel.

There’s a lot of things to describe in a novel – loads of characters, loads of settings, different types of weather. If you launch into a description like the one immediately above every time your leading character meets a new person, say, your story will quickly suffer from description overload.

So remember this. Although description is almost always better shown rather than told, it’s occasionally okay to say…

  • “It was raining” (if it’s not a particularly important part of the novel and you just want to create a sense of “raininess” in a few words).
  • “He was the ugliest man she’d ever seen” (if she’s describing a walk-on character who won’t appear again).
  • “It looked like a depressing place to live” (if the character is just passing through, never to return).

3. Dialogue

You already know what shown dialogue looks like. It’s just “regular” dialogue, complete with quotation marks and dialogue tags to let you know who’s speaking. Open one of your novels at random and you’ll probably see a chunk of shown dialogue on that page.

Told dialogue, on the other hand, looks like this…

Over dinner, they discussed plans for the wedding. Alice said she wanted the whole enchilada; Sam wanted something more intimate. Alice won.

Again, shown dialogue will always get the readers more involved. More like they’re sitting in the room with the characters, listening in. And that’s obviously a good thing.

But if a conversation isn’t very interesting (but still an important part of the story), or if you want to skip through the early part of a conversation to get to the juicier part halfway through, told dialogue is the way to achieve it.

4. Interior Monologue

The “dialogue” comments apply to monologue, too.

Most of the time, reporting a character’s thoughts word for word (or at least a close approximation of those words) is the right thing to do. Having direct access to a character’s head is one of the biggest advantages that novelists hold over movie makers. So make full use of it.

But if a lengthy monologue isn’t very interesting (but still important), or if you want to skip through the early part of a monologue to get to the juicier part halfway through, told monologue is the way to achieve it.

Here’s what shown monologue looks like…

Jenny laid back in the bath and closed her eyes. Why me? she thought. Haven’t I always been a good girl, always said my prayers? What did I ever do to deserve a two-timing dirtbag like Frank to walk into my life and turn everything upside down?

And so on and so forth. Here’s the told version…

Jenny took a bath and thought about Frank and how he’d messed everything up.

Not as engaging. But shorter. Simpler. And definitely the right strategy if the readers already know about Frank and you don’t want to go through it all again.

5. Exposition

Exposition is anything that doesn’t form a part of your story but is nevertheless important to understand it. The time your character nearly died as a kid, the inner workings of the firm of realtor’s that employs him, that kind of thing.

In most cases, exposition is best told. Why? Because telling is quick and economical. And that’s precisely how you want to handle potentially dull and tedious information. (Though you can still take that information and “hide” it in a sentence here and a line of dialogue there.)

The only exception?

If an event from a character’s past is important enough, you can “show” it in the form of a dramatized flashback. If it’s not important enough for a flashback, have the character “tell” the story from the present day as concisely as he or she can.

Show, Don’t Tell: Wrapping Up

And that’s pretty much everything there is to say about showing and telling. Here are the take-home points…

Telling presents the reader with information, but it doesn’t allow them to experience anything. That’s why you’re advised to “Show, don’t tell.”

But the rule is only half right. Sometimes telling is precisely the tool you need to zip over the boring or unimportant stuff.

In terms of the mechanics of showing and telling, you just need to remember the following…

  • There are 5 “building blocks” of fiction (action, description, dialogue, monologue and exposition).
  • Each of the blocks can be used in 2 “modes” (showing and telling).

That gives you 10 ways to construct any given section of your novel.

Confusing? Not really. Not once you’ve done a bit of practice and it all becomes second nature to you.

In the meantime, you have a neat method to analyse your writing if you ever become stuck. A method that’s a lot more useful than the overly-simple “Show, don’t tell.”

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