Showing vs. Telling

I want to talk a little bit more about this all-important aspect of writing, which is crucial to understand in both fiction and non-fiction writing.

One of the great things about the written word, as opposed to the dramatic arts like theater, movies and television, is that we have the freedom to “tell” the audience things they couldn’t otherwise know. We can get inside characters’ thoughts and feelings and physical sensations. This is an important characteristic of the written word, so the point of “showing, not telling” isn’t to completely erase this ability.

Of course, even TV shows and movies often use shortcuts and “tell” too much. How many movies have you seen where in the final act, all the questions are answered by dialogue between characters or a voiceover that summarizes everything the audience is supposed to figure out. Those can be pretty annoying.

It’s important to recognize that the more you “tell” your readers about thoughts, feelings, and situations, the less they’re able to truly experience those things along with your character. The point of showing is to give your reader an experience as opposed to information. Readers read books for the experience, and the more you can give them one, the more satisfying your books will be. You want to generate emotion in your reader, not just talk about it. You can’t simply describe feelings, you’ve got to let your audience feel them, and you do this through image and action.

In the Show vs. Tell contest last week, there were many good examples of showing… but there were also some examples of trying to show but actually telling. Sometimes it’s tough to tell what’s appropriate in a given passage, and admittedly, the lines can be blurry. It’s a judgment call, and often subjective. Yes, telling is sometimes the appropriate way to go.

Many of you have asked me questions like, “Is it okay to TELL sometimes? Is it okay to have a passage of TELLING leading up to a passage of SHOWING?” Yes, but these might be the wrong questions. You should always be asking yourself, “Is this the very best way to write this scene, or could I do it better?” Am I giving the reader an experience, or not?

Here are a few sentences and phrases from last week’s contest entries that I think may be too telling. Ask yourself as you read these: Can I see it? Can I feel it? Would it be better told with image, action or dialogue? (Some red flags for editors are words like she felt, he thought, she knew, she wondered. These are sometimes indicative of telling rather than showing.)

→ Just envisioning his face made her feel like she could float right off the bed and straight through the ceiling.

→ Butterflies took flight in my stomach…

→ I lay in the stark white bed, wondering if I would get this thing called Motherhood right.

→ Although she couldn’t remember what she was going to say, she knew she had to say something.

→ She felt as light as a feather.

→ His voice melts her heart…

→ She knew she couldn’t stay there exposed to the elements for too long…

If you want to try an exercise today, take one of the above and rewrite it so that it’s more effectively using image and action to convey the emotion or experience.

And yes, it’s true that if often takes more words to “show” than to “tell.” (That’s why I suggested 25-75 words to restate a simple four-word sentence.) But if they’re the right words, magic can happen.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Avily Jerome on October 29, 2008 at 2:05 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle- I suddenly had a vision of my manuscript and all the times I use the words “Thought, wondered, felt, knew…”

    Ah, time for the next draft!

    Thanks again!

    And thanks for that perspective, Timothy!

  2. Timothy Fish on October 29, 2008 at 1:19 PM

    >I like your use of the word experience. It implies that our readers are living through the situation with the character. As for what to tell and what to show, it may be helpful to assume that this question is related to our theme. If our story is about a camping trip, for example, it probably isn’t necessary to explain the details of what a man actually does at work, though it may be helpful to show the stress created by co-workers, thus making the camping trip a good thing. On the other hand, if the story deals with embezzling, the details at work may be hugely important and the camping trip may be relegated to an answer to a water cooler question about what the man did last week.

  3. Pam Halter on October 29, 2008 at 9:02 AM

    >Showing IS hard and takes more words. That’s why it’s so difficult to write picture books. The word count is very limited, yet we still have to tell an engaging story that will hold a child’s interest.

  4. Kim Kasch on October 29, 2008 at 8:26 AM

    >Fun contest and exercise. Great way to “show” rather than tell us writers how to show vs. tell.