On "Show Don't Tell"
Updated: Feb 24, 2020
The longer you hang out around writers, the more you'll hear this mantra. It's easy to repeat and it's rather catchy and it is, for the most part, good advice.
However, there is a time for everything. Sometimes you need to tell. Sometimes the art is better for telling than for showing.
So how do you know when to do either?
Look at the elements of storytelling:
Then look at the scene. If any of those elements would suffer for telling, show the scene. Depict it like you're describing the scene to a blind person, use all the detail you can, give them as many touch points to connect with your work as possible.
If those elements would suffer for showing, however, tell. Pacing and Tension here are vital to the success of stories. In a slower scene, it's okay to take the time to show every little detail, every little moment. But if your protagonist is running for their life, you better not be showing me how his feet hit the pavement and how he can't breathe. I'd rather you use the dramatic nature of a short sentence to say, "He ran." This leaves me as breathless as the character is.
So do both. Don't just tell me a story. Show me a story. But in the event that the art of the work would suffer if you showed everything, tell me. But always show me if you want me to relate and feel what the character is feeling.
Don't tell me the character was sad. Tell me how her tears slid down her face as she sat curled up on the bathroom floor.
Don't show me the character walking slowly across the room, each step muffled by the carpet, when it's faster and more efficient to say they crossed the room.
**This is accurate unless you're trying to build suspense in a short time and have time slow down. If the villain is crossing the room and the protagonist is hiding behind a desk, by all means, show each individual step. Build that tension to a razor edge. Let me feel the fear of no escape. But if someone is just crossing the room, I don't need to know exactly how they crossed unless it's important. But even then you can just say "Susie skipped across the room" and leave it at that.**
Show me the quiet moments where Sarah and Billy are curled up on the couch watching a movie cuddling in each other's arms, unless it messes with the pacing or the tension or the suspense. If so, just tell me they spent the night cuddling and watching movies.
Learn to prioritize your goal and emphasize what needs to be emphasized. Showing takes more time. That's not a bad thing, unless you're trying to move things quickly. Telling speeds everything up, and it can be boring to read. After all, who likes reading a synopsis? If you're only going to tell me a story, I may as well just read the synopsis, not the story itself.
Paint pictures with your words. Write vivid scenes. And for heaven's sake, be dramatic. If it's more dramatic to write a two word sentence, write that two word sentence and revel in it.
As with all writing advice, show don't tell is often overstated and under explained. In the end, you have to do what's right for the story. If you need to tell for the sake of the pacing or suspense, do so. But don't just tell or just show. A mix is required for balance and ease of reading.
Beautiful prose is nice until you're supposed to be excited (positively or negatively) by the work.
So pay attention. If a scene isn't working or it isn't as strong as it could be, put in the work to fix it and make it phenomenal. Even if that work means cutting beautiful, long sentences down to fewer words to save the pacing, or if it means finding every time you tell and rewriting until you're showing as long as it doesn't get in the way.
Your book can be amazing. You know that. I know that. But cutting and polishing a rock into a gemstone is never easy work.
So grab your hard hat, and buckle down.
Editing here you come.
J. J. Hanna graduated from Taylor University with a degree in Professional Writing. She's currently working with literary agent Cyle Young, learning to be a literary agent, and working as a freelance writer and editor. To hire her for editing, writing, speaking, or consulting, see the services tab. In her free time, she can be found cuddling with a cat, reading the latest suspense novel, or filming YouTube videos about the publishing industry.