Should You Show or Tell?

Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about a thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do the job for me”.

CS Lewis

Showing and Telling

In storytelling, showing a sequence of events hooks the reader in an instant, whereas telling them can be flat and boring. Showing is the basis of delving into detailed stuff that uses all five senses – sight, sounds, touch, smell, and taste. You can see the object or scene played out, you can hear the voice of the character and hear the sounds of the city, you can feel the touch of someone or something through description, and smell and taste air, food, perfumes etc. All this is done through vivid narrative.

Telling, on the other hand, is a string of words which simply state what is happening without emotion or drama, and that can be dull. Here are two examples.

Telling

The man drove down the road, turned left, and then right. He stopped at the junction and let the woman with the dog cross the road before he drove off again.

Showing

The man jumped into his Mercedes and turned the ignition key. The car stuttered and clicked, like it usually did when it refused to start. He tried once more. Stutter, click.

“Please, of all days, not today. Just start, will you!” Sweat trickled down his face, dampening his shirt collar. Then, the car roared into life.

The man slammed his foot down on the accelerator, jerked the handbrake down, and zoomed off. Petrol fumes entered his nose. He smiled; he always had liked the scent of burning petrol.

He sped crazily around tight corners on the narrow country road, not caring who or what came on the opposite side. He slammed on the brakes as a set of traffic lights turned red, and a tall woman in a bright yellow coat began to cross. He drummed his fingers on the wheel as she dawdled along with her poodle. It, too, was wearing a bright yellow coat. The woman stopped mid-way and turned to stare at him, her grey eyes piercing him. She smiled and walked on, and he watched her leave.  

A honk from the car behind snapped the man out of his stupor. Shaking his head, he drove off, much slower now. He wanted to know who she was.


As you see, the difference is alarming. When the words are read, they turn into moving pictures like a movie reel. We felt the car not starting, and the sweat of the man as he became impatient. We were drawn into this mysterious woman and felt her profound gaze, and we wanted to know more about her, too, just like the man did.

Readers crave to be in the heart of the action. They want to be immersed in story plotlines of history, war, comedy, contemporary and sci-fi/fantast worlds, they want to feel romantic gestures, and get stuck in the action scene of a crime or be a detective for a day. When you show, it becomes an experience and the reader wants more.

When the Telling is better than Showing

It is not always necessary to show your story, just simple telling is sufficient enough. Describing some scenes can be tedious. For example, when your protagonist gets out of bed, showers, and brushes her teeth. You do not need to get into detail here, and it is better to tell than to show to move the story along. Better yet? Leave it out all together. After all, how often do we need to know our characters got dressed before going out, when it’s a given?

Unless an action needs showing, then tell it, but don’t overdo it. ‘Showing’ is often confused with ‘describing,’ and while they are similar, there are subtle differences. It is important to keep your story engaging, and too much description can become tedious and repetitive.

For example, “She dropped her cup” is a good simple sentence to tell the reader what happened. “The cup slipped from her hand and shattered on the floor,” is better. But avoid over-descriptions. You wouldn’t say, for example, “She dropped her gold-rimmed, blue flower designed cup” unless the description of the cup held any significance, such as that particular cup was a present from her mother and was passed down from her grandmother. It’s boring.

When you go and revise your second draft, see where it is better to show and not tell, and vice versa. Always remember to keep a balance.

Further reading

Here are two websites for you to explore the “show, not tell” concept further. There are many more articles out there, however, don’t get bogged down with too much reading. Practice, practice, practice until you are happy with your work! And don’t forget to let us know in the comments below if this article was helpful!

Writing advice: Show, don’t tell: or should you?

What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean?


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