Understanding Showing and Telling

Is it a rule that your fiction writing should always “show” and never “tell?” If so, then how do you get rid of the “telling” in favor of the “showing”? And if not, then how do you know when to use which?

Jay posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

How would you define the difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’? I hear a lot from people talking about how you should never ‘tell’ the story, but always ‘show’ it, but I also see a lot of different definitions of those two terms. What are your thoughts?

Randy sez: Drat, Jay has asked a question that needs about 10000 words to fully answer it, and I’ve only got a few hundred here. Well, I’ll do what I can, but in the end, I’m going to have to refer you to my book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, for a lot of the details. (Of course, there are other books that deal with this topic, but tragically, none of those other books were written by me.)

The big problem here is that editors will often tell you “Show, Don’t Tell,” but they just plain don’t have time to show you what they mean. I believe that “showing” can be broken down into five different techniques. If you master these five, then you know everything there is to know about “showing.” If you use any other techniques than these, then you are “telling”:

  • Action. Anything your characters do, shown in real-time. Example: Jake swung the bat into the kidnapper’s head.
  • Dialogue. Anything your characters say, shown in quote marks. Example: “Take that, you scurvy dog!” Jake shouted.
  • Interior Monologue. Anything your characters think, whether a verbatim record of the thought or a mere statement of it. Verbatim thoughts are often shown in italics, whereas indirect thoughts never are. Example: And if you ever touch my daughter again, you’re dead. What were these idiots thinking, to mess with the daughter of a Navy Seal?
  • Interior Emotion. Anything your characters feel. This is best done by showing direct physiological reactions which can be directly interpreted as emotions. Example: Another rush of adrenaline boiled up in Jake’s stomach.
  • Description. Anything your characters can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Example: Two gunshots rang in quick succession. The bare light bulb in the basement exploded in a burst of darkness. Cold air rushed over Jake like a river. He smelled gunpowder, so strong he could taste it. The small red dot of a laser aiming device raced across the floor toward his feet.

If you restrict yourself to using only the five tools above, then you are “showing.” If you don’t, then you’re “telling.” Let’s look at how to “tell” the above snippet of a scene:

Jake whacked the kidnapper with a baseball bat and yelled at him, angrily wondering what kind of idiot he was. Somebody shot out the lights and then took aim at Jake.

Please note how much more efficient “telling” is than “showing.” Please note how much more vivid “showing” is than “telling.”

Now here’s an important point: You want to “show” the interesting parts of your story and “tell” the uninteresting parts.

Once in a while, I come across a manuscript that spends all kinds of time telling the character’s backstory and setting up a scene. Sometimes the writer will show in loving detail every single boring thing the character does on the way to the conflict. Then the conflict of the scene rushes past in a paragraph or two and then the writer spends the rest of the time winding the scene down in narrative summary.

Don’t do that. Spend your words on the high-conflict parts of your scene, showing it moment by moment, leaving out nothing. Then zip through the boring parts of the scene by telling.

There is a whole lot more to say about showing and telling, but it really doesn’t make sense for me to type all those thousands of words in again, when I already typed them into my book once.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

21 Comments

  1. Andrew August 26, 2010 at 5:10 pm #

    Thanks, this was a great quick summary of the difference between showing and telling in fiction.

    Also,

    Writing
    Fiction
    for
    Dummies.

    I’m broke now and can’t afford the book yet, but these words dance in my imagination every night before sleep. I’m really looking forward to sinking my teeth into this book. It’s right up there on my “to read” list with Orson Scott Card’s book on writing Science Fiction and Stephen Gillet’s “World Building.”

  2. Jay Lauser August 27, 2010 at 3:00 am #

    Thanks a lot! That really did help. I haven’t seen it explained that way before. Very good.

    It took a bit for me to see the ‘telling’ example as ‘telling,’ but after I thought about it for a while and then looked back at the ‘showing’ examples, it made a lot of sense.

    And I am really looking forward to when I can get Writing Fiction for Dummies…

  3. Judith Robl August 27, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    I have Writing Fiction for Dummies, but it’s a lot to digest all in one sitting. It will be on my reference shelf as long as I write because I will refer to it time and time again.

    Great pithy explanation of the difference between showing and telling.

    Thanks for being such a great resource for writers.

  4. Jake August 27, 2010 at 6:57 am #

    Wow, Randy. I’m itching to know what happens to Jake the Navy Seal next. If that was the first couple paragraphs of a book, you can bet that I’d keep reading.

    And I’m sure that the fact that my name is also Jake has nothing to do with it! I had no idea I was a Navy Seal! 😉

  5. Jon August 27, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    When you say it, I feel like I totally get it. When I try to do it, it’s another matter completely…I think I need to keep working on it.

  6. Tammy August 27, 2010 at 9:58 am #

    “show” the interesting parts of your story and “tell” the uninteresting parts.

    I like it. I like it a lot! I was just about to do some work on this area as I know I’m a teller and not a show’er.

    🙂

  7. Chris August 27, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    As a reading there is a huge difference between telling and showing. Telling is boring and showing is what makes a fiction book worth picking up and after reading it, sharing it with others.

  8. Melissa August 27, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    Hey Randy! I just bought your book this week. $20 at the bookstore – what a steal! (Sorry if you missed out on an Amazon.com commission, but I’ve been meaning to get this book and when I finally decided to do it, I wasn’t patience enough to wait for shipping). 🙂

  9. Melissa August 27, 2010 at 11:32 am #

    wasn’t patient enough, rather (see what happens when I don’t drink caffeine in the morning? lol)

  10. Rod August 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    When you describe interior emotions you are telling. If you show me something, I have to be able to see it. One easy way to keep this distinction is to imagine yourself filming a scene. Whatever you can capture on film, you are showing. If you can’t capture it on film, you are telling.

    Randy sez: I don’t agree with this. Film only captures video and audio. Fiction captures not only sights and sounds, but also smells, tastes, touch, thoughts, and feelings. All of those can be shown. (They can also be told, but the important point is that it’s possible to show them.) Showing is not restricted to mere sights and sounds.

  11. Jon August 27, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    Is there a way to create some kind of crazy, ultra futuristic hybrid, like, using the expediency of telling something with all the pizazz of showing it?

  12. Anders Lundblad August 28, 2010 at 12:58 am #

    About interior emotions…I think when telling you’re explaining in plain English (“he was afraid”), but whereas when you show it’s up to the reader to infer the emotion from what’s shown (“another rush of adrenaline boiled up..”).

  13. Karen Cioffi August 28, 2010 at 7:09 am #

    Nice example, Anders. And, I agree, showing can involve all 5 senses.

  14. Tom M Franklin August 30, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    “You want to “show” the interesting parts of your story and “tell” the uninteresting parts.”

    This is the best example of when to use each method of writing that I’ve read. Thanks!

    — Tom

  15. Marc Vun Kannon August 30, 2010 at 9:16 am #

    I would disagree somewhat with your fifth element, description. Unless the description is cast in the form of a character’s perceptions, it’s still telling. As a perception, it’s an action which can be shown. I have a post on this topic on my own blog.

    http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/does-size-matter/

  16. kinjalkishor August 31, 2010 at 11:15 pm #

    @ Andrew if you are broke and cannot afford books on writing(Good books do help a lot in minimum time), search the internet fro free resources. Show not tell is well explained almost everywhere.
    some good places are websites of –
    Robert J Sawyer
    Jeff A Carver
    sfwa
    Randall Ingermanson
    Holly Lisle
    and lots of random advices on some other places also.
    Search these in google.
    Also search
    “how to write novel”
    “how to write science fiction”
    “how to write fantasy”
    in google
    and read all the links from first 2 pages of search results.
    You will find ample explanation of show do not tell technique and a lot other important techniques.

    “Writing Fiction for Dummies” is a good book but it is not the only book you need to read, so do not get so much worried. More important is that you understand the basic concepts clearly and apply them in writing. Randy himself tells this in his webpages, how he played awful chess, then he bought a book to play chess, read it, understood it, applied it and within 3 months started playing a lot better. The morale being, get the concepts, understand and apply them. Any good book will tell you the same basics as “Writing Fiction for Dummies”, but I agree this book has got good collection from Randy’s point of view. And I fully recommend getting other points of view also as learning expands instead of ending with the first book.

  17. kinjalkishor August 31, 2010 at 11:22 pm #

    @ Andrew,
    go to this link
    http://www.sfwriter.com/ow04.htm
    and read, clearly understand and apply what you read there on showing and not telling. I learned a lot from this page of Robert J Sawyer.

  18. Sally Ferguson September 2, 2010 at 11:44 am #

    Randy,
    I’m hooked. What about Jake the Navy Seal?

  19. Lisa Keck September 8, 2010 at 8:36 am #

    I shall be printing up this valuable nugget of info and putting it in my writing nook. I’m new to novel writing and I’ve got a gal in critique group who always reminds us all to show don’t tell. It’s a good thing it’s not restricted to sight and sound because I have a blind character and am enjoying the challenge of writing from her POV.

  20. Brian October 26, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Rod talked about the analogy of capturing on film, which I’ve heard before. Randy replied “Showing is not restricted to mere sights and sounds.” I agree that showing is not restricted to mere sights and sounds, but inner emotion is very hard to “show”. I’m not sure that Randy’s example of “Another rush of adrenaline boiled up in Jake’s stomach” is showing, because it tells us something we can’t directly be aware of – but we could be shown his reaction to that adrenaline (trembling, tighened muscles, alert eyes, etc.) Or am I misunderstanding something? I guess sometimes the line between showing and telling is blurry. 🙂

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