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Showing and Telling Particulars

October 29, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified October 29, 2017

A writer and I were talking about showing and telling this week, about the differences between the two ways of presenting information, details, and action. And so I thought I should write up my observations as a blog article.

I’ve talked about showing and telling before—Telling and Showing, Not Just a Game We Play—so you can read more about the subject, maybe look at a few more particulars regarding showing and telling. But in this article I want to focus on instances where you might find yourself telling when instead you could be showing.

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Showing and telling are both necessary in fiction, although the balance falls well to the showing side. Showing allows us to present events as they happen, as if they’re taking place right as the reader is reading about them. In showing, action typically takes place in real time—or what passes for real time in fiction—not as an abbreviated summary. That is, actions play out in a series, one action after another, with the portrayal of them taking time just as the unfolding of actual actions would require time if real people were performing them. Readers feel time passing as events play out on the page. In contrast, if a character tells about something that happened, the telling can take much less time than the actions and events themselves would.

So a woman who tells a friend about her summer between ninth and tenth grades might cover three months with the telling. But as she’s talking—and her friend is listening—maybe only a few minutes pass.

Showing almost always takes more words, more page time. So a character could tell someone that his cat ran through the house and out the door using just one sentence. But if he showed the same event, it’s likely that he’d use at least several sentences.

Telling is often a report of the facts. Showing is the events behind the facts being portrayed on the page in real time (real story time).

Both telling and showing are components of storytelling, but we use them for different purposes and at different times. When a scene unfolds as readers watch, with characters moving and speaking as if in real time, that’s showing. When we skip forward a few days or weeks and the viewpoint character or narrator presents us with a summary of events that transpire over those days or weeks, that’s telling. Transitions and summaries are telling. Scenes that play out on the page, with characters involved in the events as the reader watches, that’s showing.

Telling in fiction can take several forms, so there’s not only one type of telling. We typically think of telling as summary and contrast it to scenes, but there are a few other instances of telling that a fiction writer should not only be aware of but know how to use to their best advantage.

~   The verb “to be” can be an indicator of telling, especially when used to convey emotion or condition.

He is exhausted

She is happy

Bill was despondent

We don’t, however, consider all uses of “to be” to be telling. That is, sometimes it’s just the verb we happen to be using. Yet if we conveyed information to readers again and again by making declarations and using “to be,” the telling would be quite obvious to readers and they’d be looking for more. They wouldn’t always want to be told how a character was feeling or told straight out that an object was hot. They’d sometimes want to learn the temperature of an object through the way a character used it. They’d want to conclude that a character was despondent through his actions.

~  Some dialogue tags are a form of telling.

“She told me so herself,” he commented.

“But you said it wrong,” she observed.

Commented and observed report how a line of dialogue was delivered. With said, the dialogue is what stands out. With report verbs, the viewpoint character is doing more than conveying dialogue. He’s telling the reader what a character is doing. Although there are times we do use report verbs as dialogue tags (I’ve covered dialogue tags in detail), many times that would be overkill. When the dialogue itself should stand out, don’t use a dialogue tag to report what a character is doing. Most of the time you want readers hearing the dialogue, not getting a report by the viewpoint character.

~  You’ll find examples of telling when a character recounts events from the past or paints a picture of his childhood or of someone in it. Words that indicate telling in such instances include used to, often, usually. This kind of telling has its place, but it shouldn’t take over a story. Readers want to see what characters are doing in the present, not listen as they reminisce about the past. Beside, as they reminisce, what are the characters doing now, sitting at a traffic light? While they remember the past, the current story goes nowhere. It’s best to keep this kind of telling to a minimum. Note that this isn’t the same as a character diving into a flashback. I’m talking about moments when characters recite long sections of the past to other characters. (Or maybe they replay memories for themselves.)

This kind of telling is used to provide info to readers and maybe to other characters. It’s not wrong, but it stops the forward motion of the story. It can deaden conflict and flatten mood. It can have readers itching for something to happen in the story’s now. This kind of telling is easy to identify because no action is taking place in front of the reader. If you were trying to create a close narrative distance between readers and story events, this kind of telling doesn’t help you achieve that. It instead puts readers at a distance. Of course it’s okay for one character to tell another about the past or to reminisce, but this kind of telling shouldn’t be a major part of the story.

Look at it this way: Would you rather listen to a friend tell you about her trip to Paris or would you rather see Paris for yourself?

When a character presents back story, that’s telling. It’s not wrong, but it may be used too often or at the wrong time.

We used to skinny dip on hot summer days. There was this swimming hole . . .

Dad usually bought only two Cokes, and we had to split them.

Sally often watched TV at Bobby’s house since both her parents worked.

~  When action takes place offstage and then someone describes that action to someone else—maybe bringing them up to date—that’s telling. This telling can be necessary when a single viewpoint character isn’t everywhere that something important is happening. If the viewpoint character has to get information from someone else, another character telling what happened is one way to go. Again, however, you wouldn’t want to rely on this too often or use this device to tell too much info at any one time. Major events should take place where the main characters are involved and where readers can watch.

~  When a character reports what was said at an earlier time but readers don’t see the people speaking the dialogue as it happens, that’s telling. This is usually presented as indirect dialogue, but a character could quote others as well.

~  Writers sometimes overuse telling paired with description. Laying out description details one after the other is a form of telling. Revealing details through the use of objects or through oblique references to setting details becomes showing instead.

Telling Example with Description

The table was set for breakfast when Valerie got to the kitchen. There were four settings. Each contained a placemat, grass green; a large bowl, three neon orange and one eggshell blue; and a small blue bowl. The glasses to the right of each placemat were extra tall, dimpled, and filled with a dark liquid.

Showing Example with Description

The table was set for breakfast when Valerie got to the kitchen. She slid into the chair with the eggshell-blue cereal bowl. Eating out of one of the neon-orange bowls would have had her throwing up her breakfast within moments. She frowned at the dark substance in her glass. When she caught the stink of prune juice, she pushed the extra-tall glass toward the center of the table.

~  Sometimes the differences between showing and telling are tough to see. Sometimes only one piece of a section of text is telling. Or maybe you’ve got several sentences of telling but the action of one should probably be shown. You have to decide if telling should be showing instead.

Let’s compare showing and telling with an example. We have Rafe and Tina, with Rafe as the viewpoint character.

Telling Example

Rafe opened the door. Tina was still mad. Not wanting to have another fight, he left.

Tina was still mad is the phrase that I want to focus on. These three sentences might be perfect for the story, sufficient to convey the necessary information. After all, sometimes straight telling is exactly what the scene needs. Telling gets the work done without fuss. It’s short and to the point. We use this style of presenting events when we don’t need to spend a lot of time with a particular action or event.

But we wouldn’t use it for key moments of important scenes. We probably wouldn’t use such a spare style when we need to show the reader something specific about one or both of the characters. We might not use it if we need to deepen the mood or ramp up the conflict.

Important or critical moments should often play out in full rather than appear as a summary. They should include the visual, the action, the sense elements, the dialogue, and the attitude or feelings of the viewpoint character as well as the attitudes of other characters if possible. They should contain elements that touch the reader’s emotions.

Maybe telling us that Tina was mad isn’t enough. Maybe to show the building conflict and to convey Rafe’s emotions as well as Tina’s you need to show what mad looks like on Tina. What does Rafe see or experience that has him concluding that Tina was mad? Can this moment be rewritten to convey Tina’s anger in a way that readers can see it?

Showing Example

Nirvana—Tina’s go-to music after a fight—blasted Rafe’s ears the moment the elevator doors slip open, driving his headache into his eyes.

He pushed open the apartment door. Tina glared at him from across the room. Rafe took two steps but stopped when glass crunched under his feet. He looked down. Shifted his weight.

“Move, Rafe. Unless you want that hard head brained by your newest participation trophy.”

Some participation trophy. The crystal pyramid was the firm’s highest award. He’d had it a whopping five days. He checked the memento shelf and studied the floor again. Last year’s pyramid, smashed to shards and crunchy particulates, was the source of the crackle under his shoes.

“I’m going to a hotel,” he said. “I can’t fight anymore.”

He turned and left.

Nirvana screamed even louder as he took measured steps down the hall. But the expected shatter of glass against the door never sounded.

The showing example is much longer, yet it allows the reader to see what’s taking place, allows the reader to draw conclusions of his own about Tina’s attitude. The reader sees what mad looks like on her.

This may be too much for the scene, or it might be perfect for advancing the plot while it also reveals character and deepens mood and conflict.

The emotions, the drama, and the attitudes are there for the reader to watch and feel when we show rather than tell.

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While the emphasis is tilted toward showing in fiction, we don’t need to show everything. Readers don’t need the tedium of watching every step a character takes as she gets ready for her day. Readers don’t need to see each action from the time a character gets up to the moment she reaches her office, the crime scene, or a restaurant.

Transition and summary are perfect for advancing the story and moving characters quickly to a new locale. So while transitions are used after scene or chapter breaks, you can also use them inside scenes to advance the action.

Some actions don’t need to be fully shown, so rather than write a full-blown scene, you can blend real-time dialogue and action with telling. And that telling can include indirect dialogue.

What you won’t want to do is to only tell rather than show. If a story sounds like the report of events told from an observer’s perspective rather than the real-time experiences of a character muddling through those events, there’s likely to be too much telling.

Deliberately choose telling and showing to fit the needs of a scene. Show important plot developments, but tell summary.

And when you use a lot of one type of telling, even for legitimate purposes, consider cutting back on other types in the same scene.

I hope this information helps with telling and showing, helps you recognize the different circumstances when you can legitimately use telling. I hope it also gives you ideas for circumstances where you might want to change telling to showing.

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4 Responses to “Showing and Telling Particulars”

  1. Thank you so much for these great tips and examples on showing vs. telling, Beth. I’ve shared them online. I agree that backstory is different than just sitting and ruminating about the past. Backstory comes into play when the character is trying to make sense of the present situation using his or her past.

    Happy Halloween.

  2. Phil H says:

    In one of my favorite (for its brevity) writing guides (minus the ‘said’ rule) is Elmore Leonard’s. Where he quotes Steinbeck “hooptedoodle” as writers writing for themselves, or what I see often as descriptive minutia that takes the reader furthe out of the story by defining its parameters instead of inviting them in to use their imagination and relevant memory synthesis. Whoa. Back on topic. Leonard said all those long paragraphs of words are easy to skip. but he bet we didn’t skip dialogue. as you say, being there is much better than ‘splaining what how every board of the barn was painted.”Restaurant worn silverware” is a whole story, you know. Do we really need the bent tines and scuffed into a Florentined finish and rust spots?

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