Showing vs. Telling: What You Need to Know

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Showing vs. Telling image 1You’ve heard it a thousand times from writing mentors, and you’ll hear it a thousand times more:

Show, don’t tell.

But what does it mean?

If you struggle with the difference between showing vs. telling, you’re not alone. Once you’ve got it, it seems simple. But until you do, this maxim causes as many questions as anything in the writing world.  

Is it really that important? You bet it is. If you want your writing noticed by a publisher or an agent—and for the right reasons—it’s vital you master the art of showing.

So let’s see if I can solidify the concept in your mind right here, right now.

I want to supercharge your showing vs. telling radar—and make it simple.

Showing vs. Telling—the Difference

When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.

You’re supplying information by simply stating it. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.”

That’s telling.

Showing would paint a picture the reader could see in her mind’s eye.

If your character is tall, your reader can deduce that because you mention others looking up when they talk with him. Or he has to duck to get through a door. Or when posing for a photo, he has to bend his knees to keep his head in proximity of others.

Rather than telling that your character is angry, show it by describing his face flushing, his throat tightening, his voice rising, his slamming a fist on the table. When you show, you don’t have to tell.

Cold? Don’t tell me; show me. Your character pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face away from the biting wind.

Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look shot.”

When you show rather than tell, you make the reader part of the experience. Rather than having everything simply imparted to him, he sees it in his mind and comes to the conclusions you want.

What could be better than engaging your readergiving him an active role in the storytelling—or should I say the story-showing?

Examples of Showing vs. Telling

Telling: When they embraced she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.

Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he was shivering.

 

Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.

Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun

reflecting off the street.

 

Telling: Suzie was blind.

Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane.

 

Telling: It was late fall.

Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.

 

Telling: She was a plumber and asked where the bathroom was.

Showing: She wore coveralls carried a plunger and metal toolbox, and wrenches of various sizes hung from a leather belt around her waist. “Point me to the head,” she said.

 

Telling: I had a great conversation with Tim over dinner and loved hearing his stories.

Showing: I barely touched my food, riveted by Tim. “Let me tell you another story,” he said.

Is Telling Ever Acceptable?

Yes, it’s a mistake to take show, don’t tell as inviolable. While summary narrative is largely frowned upon, sometimes it’s a prudent choice. If there’s no value to the plot/tension/conflict/character arc by showing some mundane but necessary information, telling is preferable.

For instance, say you have to get your character to an important meeting and back, before the real action happens. Maybe he has to get clearance from his superiors before he can lead a secret raid.

Rather than investing several pages showing every aspect of the trip from packing, dressing, getting a cab to the airport, going through security, boarding the plane, arriving at his destination—you quickly tell that this way:

Three days later, after a trip to Washington to get the operation sanctioned by his superiors, Casey packed his weapons and camo clothes and set out to recruit his crew.

Then you immediately return to showing mode, describing his visits to trusted compatriots and getting them on board.

Why the Book Is Usually Better Than the Movie  

The theater of the reader’s mind is more powerful than anything Hollywood can put on the screen. Well-written books trigger the theater of the mind and allow readers to create their own visual.

Your writing can do the same if you master showing rather than telling.

Have another question about showing vs. telling? Ask me in the comments.

Related Posts:

How to Fix Passive Voice

249 Powerful Verbs That’ll Spice Up Your Writing

How to Write Dialogue That Works

  • @Decembergirl20

    Great post, Jerry!
    Good to be reminded of these techniques that make such a difference to your writing.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks!

  • Terri Rochenski

    Excellent post! I shared this with Roane Publilshing’s author group on FB.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Terri!

      • Jan Parys

        Jerry, love your examples.

  • marissa

    Is there such thing as too much showing?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Oh, sure. The main spot beginners get this wrong by taking it as an all or nothing rule is in getting characters from one place to another. If you move your character from home to, say, her mother’s house, the only reason to show the trip by fully playing out every aspect of it would be if something significant happens on the way. Emergency? Danger? Attack? Running into someone important to the plot? But even then, show ONLY that, not–as, believe it or not, I have seen–a recitation of the character dressing, opening and closing the door of the house, entering the garage, slipping behind the wheel of the car, starting it, backing out, hitting the remote to shut the door, pulling into the street–and then ad nauseum about the route.

      THAT is too much showing, besides being on-the-nose [http://bit.ly/1boPgVI] . Here’s how that should be rendered:

      Later that morning, at her mother’s house…

      Not one reader is going to say, Hey, wait a minute! How did she get there?

  • Karsten McMinn

    great post. can you please share all books you know of on this topic? interested in learning more.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      There are dozens, Karsten. Wendy Pearson lists a few in her post above. Google “showing vs. telling” and you’ll find more than you could ever need. :)

  • Wendy Pearson

    @Karsten – Show Don’t Tell Books

    Showing and Telling in Fiction
    —Marcy Kennedy

    Understanding Show, Don’t Tell: (And Really Getting It)
    —Janice Hardy

    Show & Tell in a Nutshell
    —Jessica Bell

    Showing & Telling: Learn to Show & When to Tell
    —Laurie Alberts

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Wendy.

      • Wendy Pearson

        Great Post, Jerry!

    • Karsten McMinn

      thanks!

      • Wendy Pearson

        My pleasure!

    • Jan Parys

      Double thanks, Wendy.

      • Wendy Pearson

        You’re welcome. Hope you enjoy!

    • Billie L Wade

      Wendy, thank you for the list of books. I will check them out.

  • Glenda

    A prime number multiplied to subtract differences and add reconciliation. Can you show me? Grasping the concept but need to grip it.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s what makes us writers, Glenda–getting a feel for that as we write and as we read our stuff back. If you’re over-showing–describing stuff we would know from a choice word or two–you’re slipping into on-the-nose writing. If you’re heavy on narrative summary, that can be all telling. So pick an important piece of it that can be shown. For instance, in this example, the early stuff can be summarized (as I do) and then we get to the good stuff:

      It took Bill a half hour longer to get to work due to slowdowns on the subway line, but when he tried to explain that to his supervisor, she said, “Have a seat.”

      Uh-oh.

      “Even if I assume your excuse is legit and we forget about today,” she said, “what about the half dozen previous tardies on your record?”

      “A half dozen? Are you sure?”

      “You think I don’t keep track, Bill?”

      “Well, sure, yeah, but six? I had no idea.”

      The beginner might be tempted to play out (or show) all the subway stuff and how Bill fretted and ran, etc., on the elevator, off, rushing to his boss’s office, etc., then simply tell that he was late and got in trouble with his boss. So, tell the mundane stuff we can all imagine, and show the encounter with the boss–because he’s being warned about his future. We want that on stage with the reader in the front row.

  • writebrainrd

    I have long struggled with character reactions, such as laughter, and screaming. How does one show this in dialogue? My thanks.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Jim threw his head back and howled. “Hilarious.”

      …Mary doubled over in laughter. “Spare me,” she said, gasping.

      Characters can scream dialogue, but they can’t laugh dialogue. So:
      …, she screamed.
      …, he said, laughing.

  • Christa Polkinhorn

    Good post! I’m glad you don’t go overboard with “showing.” There should be a balance between showing and telling. Books are after all not movies. Too much, or rather, the wrong kind of showing can be equally bad. Francine Prose in her excellent book “Reading like a Writer” puts it very well: “And the warning against telling leads to a confusion that causes novice writers to think that everything should be acted out–don’t tell us a character is happy, show us how she screams ‘yay’ and jumps up and down for joy–when in fact the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language.” I think “energetic and specific use of language” is the key point!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Exactly, Christa. And besides having the perfect name for a writer, Francine is always spot on. I always learn a ton from her, and her thoughts on this subject are gold.

  • Susie Bowers

    Is the point the same for children’s books? Do you just keep the descriptions very short so their attention is not lost? Old cartoons do a lot of showing and not a lot of talking. I think it is a similar point, because the viewer sees and then has to establish thoughts, feelings, or even dialect for the character. I enjoyed your article. Thank you!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      It’s actually easier in picture books, Susie, because the illustrations can save so much description. For several years I wrote the syndicated sports story comic strip, Gil Thorp, and I used a lot more words telling the artist what to draw than I did in the conversation bubbles. If we showed a little girl cowering behind her mother at the presence of a big dog, I didn’t need to have her say she was scared or didn’t like dogs or anything that was obvious in the drawing. I could have her say, “I want to go home!” Or “I can see him from here!”

  • Frances Wilson

    Thanks Jerry. Great, and much needed posts. I struggle in that area. I am like a car that heads for the usual route, when the driver intends to go somewhere else. I have been practicing, anyway, and hope to
    discipline myself in doing it.

  • Dana Cotton Starr

    This was fantastic. I’ve read a lot about showing/telling, but this article really showed me what I needed to be reminded of and the books vs. movies thing is a good and easy way to remember the information. Thanks.

  • Maurice Armstrong

    Keep showing me how Jerry…One day i’ll get it.

  • Billie L Wade

    Jerry, thank you for a great post. In the airport scenario, I like the way you rolled it all into one sentence. In addition to telling instead of showing, I struggle with compacting the facts such as, “He packed his weapons, making sure he included the Glock. Airport security proved to move faster than usual, and he was glad he had arrived earlier than specified. Etc., etc., etc.” I appreciate your encouragement that “once you’ve got it, it seems simple.” What I have read and heard about “show, don’t tell” makes sense to me, but in practice, it evades me. I am saving your post.

    • Some things need to be mentioned, but you want to avoid the assumed and expected. “Despite a brief detour to a special area to check his weapons, he moved quickly through Security, relieved he would have access to the Glock as soon as he arrived.

      “Landing ahead of schedule…”

      • Billie L Wade

        Ahhh, thank you. I am nodding vigorously. Like Maurice, I want you to keep instructing me. Practice, practice, practice. I WILL get it.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    When writing in first-person POV, can the main character tell some of their background without showing everything? The main character’s background in one of my stories is key info to know very early on in the story, but I don’t know how to include it without just stating it.

    • Give me a paragraph example of what you mean.

      • Jamie Jenkins

        Sorry for the delay in replying. Here’s a paragraph-in-question from one of my stories.

        Twenty years ago, you could find me in the wilderness of this vast place I live. I was well-known among my tribe as an avid hunter, skilled in very form of marksmanship. I could just as easily kill a buck for our food as I could take out our mortal enemies with one shot. It was unheard of for a ten-year-old.

        • Sure, that can work, but I’d tighten it:

          Twenty years ago, I was known among my tribe as an avid hunter, skilled in very [assume you mean ‘every’] form of marksmanship. [I would change that last clause above to …hunter, a skilled marksman.] I could kill a buck or take out a
          mortal enemy with one shot–unheard of for a ten-year-old.

          • Jamie Jenkins

            Thanks Jerry!

  • Lawrence Hebb

    Jerry
    Great post, and great reminder about ‘painting pictures with words’. I like the concept.
    Lawrence

  • Fox ????????

    O.K. I Have a question. You gave the example of Telling- IT WAS LATE FALL and Showing-THE LEAVES CRUNCHED BENETH HIS FEET. My question is why can’t the two examples be put together like this? IT WAS LATE FALL THE LEAVES CRUNCHE BENETH HIS FEET would that still be showing?

    • First, it would need punctuation between the clauses. More importantly, saying it was late fall is merely telling; showing leaves crunching beneath one’s feet shows it and allows the reader to deduce it–which makes saying both redundant.

  • Charlotte Wheat

    Thank you, Jerry, for clarifying for me that there are times telling is appropriate. I too like the theater in my mind better than the Hollywood efforts. After struggling for a while with passive and active voice I think I have it. Would you discuss this, again, sometime?

  • Fox ????????

    O.K. Now I think I understand. In order to combine both examples it would have to go more in depth, about it being late fall. With the leaves changing colors and they themselves beginning to fall from the trees creating a thick carpet to crunch under his feet.
    And I would have to also mention the chill in the air and the dimming of the afternoon daylight. And I would also have to describe weather it is a forest setting or a city sidewalk. Is that Close?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Because you don’t think people know what happens when leaves are crunchy underfoot? :) I would not need to be told about shortening days or a chill in the air. I don’t need anything about the weather unless it’s significant to the plot. A storm? Maybe. Otherwise, I’ll assume it’s fall weather. Just give the reader enough to trigger the theater of his mind. He doesn’t need to be spoon fed. Don’t do all his work for him.

      And no, I don’t think a man walking on a city sidewalk will have leaves underfoot. :)

      • Susan W A

        “Just give the reader enough to trigger the theater of his mind”

        I think I shall carry that image in my writer’s pocket to draw upon as inspiration

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Thanks, Susan.

        • Leah Ann

          Yes, me too!

  • You nailed it again Jerry. Your explanations are so easy to understand and implement. I am blessed to be one of your online students. Thank you

  • Karen Crider

    I have been to a writer’s conference at the University of North Dakota. It was a hoot! I looked over some of yesterday’s books that I bought there, and this subject was addressed. When I see how they define it, I think of my mom. She seldom told me to do housework a certain way. I simply did what she did, and I learned what I needed to know. This is a type of show don’t tell, and the same rule can be applied loosely to writing. I can see her actions in my head. So showing lends to imagery, and telling is just telling. I would rather have the pictures.

    • Susan W A

      cool analogy

  • Mia Pagliuca

    Dear Mr. Jenkins,
    I just have a couple of questions.
    I am really looking forward to reading The Paper Boat. Do you know when it will be available for purchase?
    Do you think you will write a fourth book in the series?
    Thank you!

    Sincerely,
    Mia Pagliuca

  • Rosemarie H

    Thank you for this Show, Don’t Tell lesson. So helpful!!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Rosemarie.

  • 4 Season’s Farm

    Thank’s for the post. This is very helpful and now I can do some editing of my work for show and not tell.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thank you! (Apostrophe in ‘thanks’ a typo?)

      • 4 Season’s Farm

        Yes it is. Thank you.

  • You make it so easy and it’s the hardest thing to do! So many books are mostly tell books. I, in a hurry to tell all that’s spilling out of my mind and where my book is going that I don’t show enough. Thank you.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Glad to help, Marta.

  • Sarah White

    This is wonderful. Succinct but it covers everything and the examples are the best part. Reblogged this on https://sewhitebooks.wordpress.com/for-writers/

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks so much for doing that, Sarah.

  • Kimberly Patton

    I really needed this! Thank you!!!

  • Leah Ann

    All super helpful, especially briefly telling about an event that moves the story forward but it’s too mundane to show. One way I instinctively solved this issue was by avoiding anything mundane but I realized sometimes it provides a helpful contrast, a tool to highlight tension, conflict, drama. It’s all the relativity that gives meaning. What’s exciting about writing is I get to choose how to show these relationships.

    Thank you!

  • Haifa Farzaana

    It looks like it’s easy but it’s not! Oh god, I feel so bad about my writing right now. Anyway, thank you so much! Your tips have been really helpful :)