The phrase “showing vs. telling” has been uttered thousand of times by writers and industry professionals alike. But what does it actually mean? And why, oh why does it so often lead to automatic rejections from literary agents?
Writing a book, like any other skill in life, is one that is honed and perfected through practice. That means not only editing many copies of your first manuscript but also writing new manuscripts—and many new ones at that.
If telling (vs. showing) is something you struggle with, you are not alone. In fact, most new writers struggle with mastering this skill.
But what is showing vs. telling? Let’s dive into the basics.
Defining Showing vs. Telling
Showing is when you allow the reader to experience information through deducing context clues in the scene, whereas telling is informing the reader outright what a character is thinking, feeling, etc.
The latter is usually through an author inserting themselves into a scene through obvious descriptions or through exposition, summarizing what happened/is happening.
If you say your character is “cold,” “angry,” or “lonely,” that is telling.
If you describe a character’s nose growing pink and shivering beneath his/her cloak, that is showing.
You want readers to experience the story for themselves. Not to mention, readers are far smarter than you think—trust them to pick up on subtle context clues and figure things out own their own.
There are many ways to show:
- Action: Such as things like body language or angry outbursts.
- Dialogue: An example here would be a character stuttering, saying something to distract whoever they are talking to from the issue at hand, etc.
- Thoughts: This could be a character thinking about possible outcomes and wondering why he is so worried about a particular outcome (maybe he is falling in love and doesn’t want his love interest to move away).
- Senses: Utilize all five senses—sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Maybe a character gets dizzy and can’t see straight or maybe a character’s sense of smell is heightened when she’s in shock from news.
- Feelings: Now, this isn’t outright saying, “I’m sad.” Instead, this could be conveying a feeling like anxiety through body language because a character’s best friend is leaving for battle the next day (thereby showing a character is scared to lose her friend). Or, it could be showing conflicting feelings or a character prioritizing the less meaningful feeling (such as hunger vs. sadness/mourning) to try to cope with whatever s/he is going through.
Showing vs. Telling Examples
Telling: Michael was sad to see Sarah leave.
Showing: Michael watched Sarah board the train, blinking back the tears threatening to cascade down his cheeks.
Telling: The temperature was sweltering in the middle of the day.
Showing: Jeff ran the back of his hand over his brow, wiping sweat from his eyes and squinting at the noonday sun.
Telling: Claire was a painter and asked where she should set up her easel when she arrived.
Showing: Claire knocked on the front door, heaving her canvas and easel under an arm, nearly dropping them on the pristine front porch.
How to Show vs. Tell
A few quick bullets to tick off your list while you are editing:
- Look for any outright statements of emotions (like “I am sad”) and swap that out whenever possible.
- Use descriptive/active verbs and avoid using “was”/“were” whenever possible. (Examples: plunked, sauntered, wriggled.)
- Use all five senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Most writers rely too heavily on sight and sound.
- Don’t forget about body language! If you see a character slouching, crossing their arms, bouncing on the balls of their feet, etc. that goes far in showing what he/she is feeling.
- Utilize setting: Set the tone for a scene in the way you describe the characters’ surroundings, weather, other characters’ clothing, etc.
- Less is more in dialogue. Too many writers use dialogue to tell things they didn’t show in other parts of the chapter/scene. However, dialogue NEEDS to feel natural/authentic—like something someone would actually say aloud. Dialogue is one of the best ways to convey voice and flesh out characters/make them three-dimensional. Therefore, proceed with caution if you are using dialogue to move the plot forward. It shouldn’t feel like you are placing your authorly hand into the scene and (unnaturally) pushing it forward.
Exceptions to the Rule
While showing vs. telling is the way to go for almost everything in a manuscript, there are exceptions.
For things like internal monologue, it can be advantageous to tell the reader what a character is thinking/feeling in order to convey a point, hint at a future occurrence, communicate stakes surrounding a pivotal choice, and so on.
Showing relies heavily on a character’s actions (such as body language or movement), but maybe this character can’t move as they are confronting the antagonist and must make a decision in their mind before taking action.
Telling can cover the basics when you are in the midst of a tense scene and there isn’t time or need to show. However, most of the time showing vs. telling is preferable.
While information dumps are also a huge issue for new writers, this is NOT the same as telling vs. showing. I receive a lot of questions about this on Twitter and iWriterly, during which time I’ve noticed writers tend to confuse the two.
Information dumps (also called “info dumps” and “info-dumping”) is when a large amount of information (usually background information/exposition) is conveyed to the reader all at once.
Look for back-to-back paragraphs of background information (usually explaining a character’s history/past experiences or world building/historic information of the world’s past events). Multiple paragraphs of heavy exposition in a row are usually a sign of sloppy background information placement.
Instead, carefully consider what information a reader absolutely needs to know. Then, trickle in the information into a scene (such as between pieces of dialogue). However, be careful this is information your narrating character/POV knows through experience or gleaning through some source of information (such as news/books).