When to Show and When to Tell

Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever taken a writing course of any kind, you’ve probably heard that phrase.

If you haven’t, the meaning is pretty simple: don’t come out and tell your readers everything they need to know. Instead, show them examples and specific situations that support what you’re trying to say. Doing so often solidifies your points a little better than straight telling.

I agree with this phrase to a certain extent. However, sometimes it’s best to understand when one should show and when one should tell.

Showing everything and telling nothing can slow a narrative to a crawl. In many instances, simply telling the reader what they need to know keeps the pace moving. For example, you don’t need to show that your main character has red hair. That can come off as silly, with some other character saying, “My, what red hair you have.” It disrupts the flow of your story and makes your characters sound like they’re explaining details to the reader. That’s a big no-no.

Instead, one might write, “Her hair was the same shade of red as fresh autumn leaves.” Here we’re telling the reader through the authorial voice, which feels more natural than one character explaining details about another.

One might also tell rather than show in an effort to avoid confusion. For example, let’s say that there’s a magical substance in your world that allows people to fly. To show this, you have a scene in which a character drinks the drink, and then flies away.

As a reader, I might not make the connection between the drink and the flight. I might think that the drink is just a drink, and that the character can fly at will. Without being explicit about the connection between the two, I might miss it.

Instead, let’s try telling the reader about the drink’s magical properties through narration. Show them how it feels to fly, sure, but tell them the essential information so it doesn’t get lost.

The moment the first drop touched her tongue, she felt herself  growing lighter. Another sip and she rose off the ground, rose higher, higher, higher still. She knew none of it would be possible without the drink. 

Showing and telling are both tools in the writer’s toolbox. Showing is the most valuable of the two, though it isn’t the only one we should use. When appropriate, we need to tell our readers what they need to know. Doing so could make a huge difference in our writing.

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5 thoughts on “When to Show and When to Tell

  1. Pingback: When to Show and When to Tell — Kyle A. Massa – I Suck at Writing

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