Show *And* Tell

janav Try This, Writing Leave a Comment

Continuing on February’s theme of “writing advice,” I want to tackle what is probably the piece of advice writers hear most often: “Show, don’t tell.” This is good advice for beginning writers, who often don’t know the difference between narrative and story. They narrate everything, from what the character felt to where she went and why, without thinking of showing action in scenes.

But “show, don’t tell” has been drummed into writers’ heads so well, they can be afraid to tell anything. And critique groups can make it worse, religiously repeating the mantra even when it doesn’t make sense. So, when does it make sense to tell instead of show? It can be tricky. Ask yourself: Is it background information that the narrator could refer to in a few lines? Or is it a scene that moves the story forward? That is the key: if it is necessary information for the reader to know in order to understand the context or the backstory, but it does not specifically contribute to the forward momentum of the story in question, it can likely be summed up in a narrative, rather than a long scene that drags the energy away from the main story.

The other tricky thing is this: “show, don’t tell” often leads writers to think they need to start a story right in the middle of a high-action scene, before we know who these characters are or what’s going on. This leads to a confusing mess. We can’t care about what’s going on until we know the characters, especially the protagonist, and the context of the situation they find themselves in. Of course, you want to start with the protagonist in action, i.e. doing something that launches the story. Not just eating breakfast, or (especially!) waking up.


John stretched and yawned. He blinked at the bright sliver of sunlight peeking through his shades. He felt really good this morning. He was happy because nothing ever happened to him, and he liked it that way. Little did he know today would be his biggest day ever. But first, he had to get up. Breakfast first. He always ate Raisin Bran. Funny thing, he didn’t really like raisins.


“What’s going on?” Brenda screamed. The storm had picked up so quickly, she didn’t have time to think. “Billy! Sarah! Mike! Where are you?” One minute they were all in their tents, the next the whole campsite had blown away. But the others had to be somewhere. If only they hadn’t chosen the middle of hurricane season to go camping! She knew Mike was probably high, but hoped he was somewhere nearby. He had overdosed last month, but Sarah said he was getting better. They’d all spent hours in the ER, praying for him. Now Brenda was all alone, and frightened out of her wits. Unless Jimmy still had the truck. He’d gone for food and gas, but that was two hours ago.    


Jane turned into the narrow lane overhung with trees. Immediately the sunny day turned gloomy, as though someone had flicked a giant dimmer switch. She couldn’t see the house yet, but the trees formed a long green tunnel, stretching into woods on either side. She drove slowly, avoiding stones and roots. The driveway ended in a tangle of overgrown grass. She stopped the car, took a deep breath, and got out. Big creepy tumbledown house, check. Mad-scientist-looking guy with a shock of white hair at the door, check. She wiped her palms on her jeans. Not exactly what she’d expected from a new job as an administrative assistant, but better than nothing. She hoped. She didn’t have enough money in her bank account to be picky.     

Which one brought you into the story, and made you want to keep reading? All right, none of them are deathless prose, but I hope one stands out (please say #3). You can cram in a lot of information in a paragraph. We know Jane is poor, that’s she’s an administrative assistant, that her new job is going to be… a little unorthodox, to say the least. We never are told directly how she feels, but we know. We get a sense of her and her situation, and the coming conflict (although it’s not clear if this is a horror story, a drama, or a comedy at this point).

So, to sum up: When do you tell outright? Mainly, when you can summarize in a few sentences vs. taking the reader on a long flashback, or on a long transitional scene that doesn’t move the story forward. Or, when showing (dramatizing) will take the reader out of the current scene, and lose momentum. For everything else, work on your showing skills.

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