Showing and Telling: The Quick and Easy Way to Tell the Difference

Arguably the most important rule of fiction is the age-old Show, don’t tell! Sounds simple, right? And yet many inexperienced (and some not-so-inexperienced) writers struggle with this foundational principle of showing and telling. After all, isn’t all of writing telling? Every word we write is for the express purpose of telling the reader what he’s supposed to imagine. Right?

The simple answer is yes. The not-so-simple answer is yes and no. Personally, I’ve always thought the show-and-tell aphorism was a poor one, simply because, for a writer, showing and telling both amount to the same thing: explaining a story to the readers.

So what’s the difference?

Showing and Telling: The Short Explanation

Telling is summarizing. Telling gives the readers the bare facts, with little to no illustration.

Showing is elaborating. Showing gives the readers the details of a scene, including what the character(s) are seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, thinking, and feeling emotionally.

Showing and Telling: The Long Explanation

The differences between showing and telling are perhaps best recognized in actual examples. Following are some modified snippets from my fantasy Dreamlander.

Dreamlander by K.M. WeilandTelling:

Orias ran away from the soldiers. His horse jumped a fallen tree branch. He heard someone shout for him to stop, and he felt nervous. The soldiers halted and aimed their rifles at him.

Showing:

From behind came the pounding of hoofbeats. Tree branches whipped across Orias’s face and showered his saddle with leaves. He gritted his teeth, his face set in the snarl that had become his protection against an unjust world. They would not catch him. Must not catch him.

 He spurred his horse’s bloodied sides, and his fingers itched to reach for the broadsword sheathed on his back. His blood thundered in his veins, pulsing against the oyster white of his skin, sharpening his reflexes, narrowing his thoughts to razor intensity.

 His tired horse stumbled, and the hoofbeats behind drew nearer. Voices shouted: “Stop now! In the name of Mactalde, surrender!”

 He spat an oath and ducked another tree branch. Even the man’s name—dead though he was these twenty years—burned through the air like a curse.

Hoofbeats slowed and faded, surpassed by the rapid clatter of rifles rising to aim and the click of bolts locking into place. Orias’s blood congealed in his veins.

The difference, of course, is immediately discernible. The first example gives the reader the necessary facts, but the second brings those facts to life.

And just how does one go about bringing those necessary facts to life? It isn’t a question that can be answered in a sentence or two, simply because all of fiction is about showing. Every step, every trick, every nuance of the fiction craft is for the express purpose of bringing settings and characters to life. No author will ever master the art of showing, simply because no author will ever master the art of fiction. Perfection in this area, as in all others, is something we’re all striving for.

Hence, the obvious answer to our question is simply to keep honing every area of your craft. If you can improve just one minor area of plot or character development, you will also have improved your mastery of showing. That said, here are a few more particular suggestions for concentrating on this heartbeat of the craft.

1. Focus on the Senses

Probably the easiest way to bring life into a scene is to concentrate on one or all of the five senses. Tell the reader what the character sees or smells. If your scene is set in the middle of a summer rainstorm, mention the smell of wet asphalt and the shimmer of oil in a mud puddle.

Instead of merely saying your character walked into a flower shop—and leaving the details for the reader to fill in—show us what the character encounters. Tell us about the ring of the bell over the entrance, talk about the splashes of scarlet and yellow, the perfumed air. Use your imagination, dig deep for little, telling details that will make the scene pop in the reader’s imagination.

But don’t go overboard with your descriptions. Especially in our television-fueled days, most readers aren’t patient enough to thumb through pages of description (no matter how lifelike). Instead, you have to select a handful of the most important details and scatter them throughout your action and dialogue.

2. Utilize Vivid Language

Specificity is the life’s blood of fiction. You can write about a character who is walking down the street—but how much more evocative is it to talk about him shuffling down an alley or promenading down the aisle? Use specific verbs and nouns, and tastefully select only modifiers that share important facts.

Before I close, I should note that telling is not without its place in fiction. Not every scene or action needs to be fully dramatized. Relatively unimportant scenes can be summarized, recaps of information (such as when your character is telling another character information with which the reader is already familiar) can be brushed over, and unsavory details can be avoided.

Once you acquire the habit of painting on the broader canvas of showing, you’ll find the art of fiction is more boundless than you could have imagined.

Tell me your opinion: What do you find is the most difficult part of showing?

Showing and Telling The Quick and Easy Way to Tell the Difference

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. It’s always about showing rather than telling when it comes to writing fiction. This is an area I am particularly weak in, and certainly an area I hope to improve. I admire writers who can express themselves so well in descriptive writing and I hope to be able to do the same in a not too long future, even though I only write non-fiction most of the time.

    Recently, I wrote an article on this subject in applying it to other aspects of life, such as showing the One who dwells in us in our lives, rather than just telling about Him. If you like, you can read it at FW.

  2. Good analogy.

    Showing is probably the single most important aspect of style. Readers want stories they can see, and it’s our job to figure out how to give it to them!

  3. Could not find a suitable section so I written here, how to become a moderator for your forum, that need for this?

  4. Not sure what forum you’re talking about. Wordplay is just a blog at this point.

  5. That wasn’t so much telling vs showing as telling vs dramatization.

    So what winnows between showing and dramatizing? Are they truly synonymous?

  6. The terms “showing” and “telling” are misleading, since technically all of writing is telling, as opposed to, say, a movie, which actually shows the characters and their settings. When authors talk about “showing,” what they’re really talking about is describing something in enough detail to help the reader visualize it. I actually tend to think the terms “dramatizing” and “summarizing” are much more accurate.

  7. Oh, yes! Specifity is a great tool! As I read once, is not the same saying “Smoking is better leaning agaist a car” that saying “A cigarette tastes better leaning against a Ferrari”.

    Thanks for the great post!

    M.

  8. Good example. Authors shouldn’t be afraid to names – although we also have to beware of the problems of dating our fiction through overuse of branding.

  9. I’ve found its a lot easier to show than tell, if you know what your going to write even in your head, before you type it.

    One of the reasons I outline is not to have a set plot, but more to use bullet points to highlight necessary facts like: What are calisthenics, what time does boot camp get up in the morning, what is a common staple in boot camp, and other key information. A lot of my writers block comes from information gaps.

    Oh by the way, as strange as it sounds, I sometimes start when you wake up like beginning writers do, specifically so I can cut that part out, by starting with the inciting incedent. As an example, like what I cut out when my guy brushed his teeth and ate, and switched it where his car went through a portal.

  10. Nothing wrong with starting with “wake up” scenes, or dumping info, or writing scads of backstory. Sometimes we have to get all that our of our systems just to figure things out within the story. We can always delete what’s unnecessary later.

  11. I struggle with showing vs. telling ALL the time. I am pretty weak in that area (though once my friend points it out to me I instantly go over and fix it.) Usually what I’ve defaulted to now is that I will just write it more telling then when I edit I go over and change all my description and stuff from telling to showing. It seems to work pretty well for me….but I’m no pro either. Thats just how I do it…But Showing VS. Telling is something I definitely struggle with. This post helped a lot! 🙂

    • I like to think of the difference between showing and telling as being the difference between a pencil sketch and a photograph. One tells the bare details; the other fills in all the missing colors and textures.

      • You are right. Telling gives the abstract idea about the scene but showing makes people live the scene and readers find it very living to project the words onto his/her imaginations.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Precisely. The art of fiction is all about creating a world in which the reader can live in his imagination. Showing is the single most effective way to accomplish that.

  12. I’ve always said, the most important place to show not tell is with emotions. Example:

    Telling: “She was angry.”

    Showing: “She gritted her teeth and flared her nostrils, glaring at the man across the table.”

    You don’t need to be told she’s angry. It’s OBVIOUS she’s ticked off. And since emotions are what drives a good story, if you’re showing emotions you can make a good story, even if you’re telling other parts of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. “Never name an emotion” is a “rule” I try to hold myself too. This isn’t, of course, to say we should never name an emotion. Sometimes naming the emotion is scads simpler and more effective than trying to show it. But, usually, we’ll get a much more evocative result by trying to reveal the emotion without actually calling it by name.

  13. Nessiexo says:

    This is great! Thank you! I keep forgetting to play with the senses.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s a fun trick for whenever you’re stuck on a scene. Start thinking about the littler-used senses like smell and taste.

  14. What a fantastic article and one that every writer should look at now and again. Really appreciate the great advice.

  15. Thank you, great piece, with useful advice on how to avoid telling rather than showing. I like your exchange with Rachel about not naming the emotion. I notice even successful authors do a lot of telling as well as showing, some even tell us twice: She gritted her teeth and flared her nostrils. She was really angry. “I am furious,” she shouted. (Not the best example – hard to shout through gritted teeth and flared nostrils, I have just been practising!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, unnecessary telling gets us all from time to time. At the moment, I’m reading a bestselling author who tells constantly, in small ways. Most people probably won’t even notice, but she could have breathed so much more life into her narrative just by getting rid of the little “tells.”

  16. You are my hero now. Thankyou for this. 😀

  17. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    @Shashi: Can you clarify your question for me? In what way are you wanting to “convert” the story?

    • Just assume I have an idea for story and I want to make it as realistic as possible. How should I go on while writing the story ?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Research, of course, is always the first step. Then just stay alert to how you’re presenting the setting. Are you hitting all the five senses in your descriptions? Are your characters reacting realistically to events?

        • Yeah, you are right. I should consider that aspect too.
          Sometimes, when I read my articles it feels as if it is a combination of some instances although each instance is pointing to the theme but they are not connected to each other. For a writer to excel and progress, which is better: connections among the instances or just a combination of instances ?

          How would I get the connections which would make the story seem like it’s one and not a combination of things ?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            If by instances you mean “scenes,” then the foremost answer to that is scene structure. When we can link all our scenes in a causal chain, the whole story hangs together like it’s supposed to.

          • Thank you. I will look into it. Your articles have been so helping 🙂

  18. Sometimes when I write something, my writing mentor tells me that it is good. But it is just a skelton and needs all the necessary flesh and veins to be whole.
    Sometimes when I write something, I feel too MCU dragging of unnecessary details going on
    Its really hard to find a grey area in between them 🙁

  19. Oh! I have such a hard time with this! Every time I get feedback from my writing, I am told to “show, not tell.” I don’t get it, I really don’t! Every time I write, I think that’s what I AM doing! This article is so very helpful, but I want a class. Please, oh, please somebody (ahem, K.M. Weiland) 😉 teach an online course, and I will take it! This is the one area I need the most improvement. I am completely baffled!!!

  20. You do a great job of detailing some very effective ways to help writers improve their showing, and as you noted, showing is not always better. There are many times when telling is the better alternative. Telling can be both cold and concise, which at times are effective story telling tools. I recently compared and contrasted comments from Sol Stein and King and Brown’s book on the topic: http://www.allentiffany.com/show-and-tell-in-your-fiction/ Much as you did, I showed ( 🙂 ) how Stein took a short “telling” sentence and made it more vivid by “showing”. So far, so good. But also as you did, he greatly increased the length of the passage, which may or may not be consistent with the author’s larger intent. Overall, great stuff, and enjoying your blog! Allen

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, it’s extremely true that authors can’t dramatize *everything.* In order for the book to adhere to any kind of a reasonable word count, certain scenes simply must be skipped or summarized. We need to save dramatization/showing for the scenes that are really important and juicy.

  21. Hi, K.M.!

    Thank you for your most informative blog. I’m a professional writer with a published debut novel.

    Just a quick question: In a scene with a boy and a girl interacting in conversation while walking through the woods, I’d like to lend a foreboding by having the narrator allude to the fact that they’re being watched–just a sentence.

    Is this omniscient POV or an info dump? And is it acceptable?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This could be a little of both, depending on how it’s conveyed. If you’re *not* using an omniscient narrator for the entire book, then this would technically be out of POV and should be avoided.

      But even if you are legitimately in an omniscient POV, it’s usually better if you can use the ominous subtext to alert readers to the peril, rather than straight-out telling them.

  22. Sounds like something my writing mentor would say as well. Thanks, K.M.

    Blessings,

    Mary

  23. EnderCraft757 says:

    Really great article! Thanks a lot. 😀

  24. Excellent article about the difference between telling and showing.

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