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Show vs Tell – a Guest Post by BTL Edits

Posted by on July 18, 2013

Let’s play a game. The first part is to read both of these scenes.

Version 1:

“What do you think you’re doing?” Levi asked angrily.

“Digging through your trash,” Jenna replied, tossing a can over the edge of the dumpster. She was dirty and smelled like sewage. “Wanna lend me a hand?”

Levi was disgusted. “Not a chance. Get out of my dumpster! You can’t just go digging through someone’s garbage.”

“Once it’s in the can, it’s out of your hands,” Jenna said with a mischievous smile. She tossed him a green bottle, which he promptly dropped. “And it’s mine to raid.”

Version 2:

Levi cursed under his breath. Was she crazy?

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Digging through your trash,” Jenna replied with a shrug, tossing a can over the edge of the dumpster. “Wanna lend me a hand?”

There was a rather disturbing stain on the hem of her shirt and bits of food were caught in her hair.

“Not a chance.” Levi wrinkled his nose, fighting off the urge to gag as the scent of rotten eggs and something moldy reached his nose. He took a step back, but it did little to help with the smell.

“Get out of there! You can’t just go digging through someone’s garbage.”

Jenna folded her arms over the side of the dumpster and winked at him. “Once it’s in the can, it’s out of your hands,” she sang. She tossed him a green bottle, which he promptly dropped, wiping his hands on his vest. “And it’s mine to raid.”

The second part is to tell us: which version would you rather read?

One of the most common things we keep an eye out for as we edit is showing vs. telling. Yes! The dreaded show vs. tell that everyone talks about. What does it mean? We’re going to tell you—nay, we are going to show you.

Show vs. Tell in Dialogue

The first version of this scene was an example of telling. The writer tells you that Levi is angry. Tells you that Jenna is dirty and smelly. When a novel tells us how a character acts or feels or reacts, a scene can come across as vague or boring.

Levi was angry. That doesn’t tell us much. Anger comes in many forms. To what degree was he angry? How does he express that anger? Does he keep it inside and seethe? Does he explode? Hit the side of the dumpster? Clench his fists? Narrow his eyes? We want to know what angry looks like. We want to see it in our heads. We want to be shown.

The second version is an example of showing. Notice that the word anger isn’t even used. It isn’t necessary. No one has to tell us Levi is angry with Jenna for going through his dumpster. We can see his irritation through his speech, thoughts, and actions.

Think of a novel as a mental movie. As it’s read, a feature film is playing inside the reader’s head. The more a scene shows, the more vivid the mental image. The words you choose to use when writing a story are the set pieces and wardrobe and acting talent that can turn a B grade movie into an A list feature film in someone’s mind.

One of the big differences between telling and showing is generalization versus specificity. Telling pulls the reader away from the scene. There’s narration, but no real interaction. Showing engages the reader, pulls them in, and gives them details that put them right in the middle of things. We could tell you that Jenna was dirty and smelly from being in the dumpster, but it doesn’t have the same effect as pointing out the stain on her shirt, the food in her hair, the scent of rotten eggs and something moldy hanging in the air. The details ground the reader in the scene and make them more invested by giving them more information.

Anton Chekov once said “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Chekov illustrates the difference between showing and telling in such a succinct way. The moon is shining? That’s boring. Moonlight glinting off broken glass? That’s a story. Maybe even a slightly ominous one.

Show vs. Tell in Character

Telling doesn’t only show up in scenes laden with dialogue. Inner monologue is another place to watch while you write, especially near the beginning of the novel. Inner monologue is how we get to know the character, so telling can mean ruin.

When the plot is new, the environment is new, and all the characters are new, it can be easy to fall into the telling trap. You might want to get all the information in the hands of the reader as soon as possible so the story can begin. But it should be the exact opposite. Start telling the story so we can learn the necessary information.

If a character has three sisters and his mom isn’t home a lot, I don’t want to read a block of text where the main character explains that situation in his head. It’s not natural. No one makes time to sit and think about their home life. They live it. A more interesting scene would be one that features all four siblings interacting with each other. Maybe one sister mentions that mom won’t be home until late. Again. This gets the point across (Three sisters and an absent mother) without cramming it down the reader’s throat.

In many ways, showing is a subtle form of description. The reader learns about the character and the world and the plot through the story itself. A narrator will tell you facts, but that’s all they are. Facts. Facts don’t make a connection between the story and the reader. Experience creates a connection.

Jamie has three sisters. They practically raised him since his mom had to work all the time. So what? Do I care about Jamie? Not much. I feel distance from him. I don’t know him. I don’t know his sisters. I don’t know his mother. But if I’m introduced to Jamie in a scene with his sisters, if I see them baby him and berate him his bad eating habits, if one of his sisters tells him mom will be home late again, then I care about Jamie. I care about his situation. I’m close to the story. I’ve developed a connection.

You want us to connect to your character, but when you tell us every single emotion or action a character is doing, the connection feels forced. Give us less and let us figure it out based on the information provided. Telling can also ruin other characters, especially if the story is in first person. We learn about the environment and the other characters through the narrator’s eyes. If the narrator is telling us about another character instead of letting us see the other character the way they do, that’s also something that doesn’t work.

Telling a story instead of showing a story can sometimes be the reason editor or agents pass on a manuscript. If we’re told all the information, no connection is formed, and we stop caring about whether or not we finish reading. Showing a story makes us care.

Show vs. Tell in Description

Showing is not the same thing as description.

When someone tells you to “show”, we are not asking you to go overboard with your descriptions. Showing and writing descriptively might live in the same neighborhood, but they’re not the same.

Description is all about the details of things. When someone walks into a room, we want to be able to picture it. What kind of environment are we stepping into? Description can be used to show something about a person. If there are piles of dirty clothing all over a bedroom and the bed doesn’t look like it’s been made in a month, we know something about that character immediately just because of the description.

Showing is all about visualizing a situation so that it translates from black scribbles on a page to a mental image. The main thing to remember when trying to fix show vs. tell in your writing is to dig deeper. Often times, writers are afraid to go into that mental space of the character, so they tell instead of show. Really get into your characters and their surroundings. Read your stuff aloud or have someone else point out any instances of telling that you have. It will help you understand your own writing better. When someone says, “this is telly” don’t brush off that comment. Fix it. It’s too important to the story. And in summary, if you ever wonder if you are telling too much, then you probably are.


This is the third post in a series on four major problem areas found in most manuscripts sponsored by Between the Line Edits. You can click here to find a listing of the other posts.

This post was provided by Between the Line Edits, a freelance editing company specializing in NA/YA fiction composed of three industry professional editors (Danielle Ellison, Briana Dyrness and Patricia Riley) who have more than twenty manuscripts under their experience. BLT Editors are dedicated to helping writers shape great stories. Their goal is to give you, the writer, the tools that will help you get where you want to be. on twitter @BTLEdits and get more information on their services on their website.


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2 comments

  1. This is something I've really been trying to work on. When trying to plow through a NaNoWriMo not too long ago I was frustrated to find that I was just spewing out a LOT of telling. “Showing” may take more time, but I think it's an important art that turns scribble to prose. Thanks for the great post!

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