Writing

Should You Show or Tell?

“Show; don’t tell” is one of the most popular adages in writing circles. For many writers, it’s tried and true advice. However, the real rules behind showing and telling are more complex than this simple statement suggests. There is a smooth gradient between showing and telling, and full novels need most shades on the scale. So how do you know how much to show and how much to tell?

From Telling to Showing

Let’s start with an overview of our showing and telling gradient. I’ll divide it into five shades.

  1. Stewart had a gambling problem.
  2. Stewart lost all his credits betting on war simulations, but he kept plugging in for more.
  3. Stewart spent every Saturday plugged in, putting credits on war simulations. Last month he’d even missed his daughter’s birthday. He never told his family when he lost more than he could afford, but they’d know because electronics would disappear from the house soon after.
  4. Stewart was having another unlucky Saturday in the virtual gaming lounge. He’d fenced the holographic projector for more credits to bet on war simulations, but he was still cleaned out by sundown. He asked Marty to give him just one bet on the house – hadn’t he earned it? But Marty wouldn’t have it. He was about to trade in his communicator when it received a first priority signal. It was Sarah. She told him Carrie’s birthday party was almost over.
  5. “Come on, just one more bet, you know I’m good for it. Hey look – I’ll give you my communicator.” Stewart pulled a black disc from his front pocket and slid it across the counter toward Marty. “It’s a genuine H47 model, not even on the market yet.”
    Marty’s brows went up. He put down his dish towel and reached for the gadget. But just before his fingers closed around it, it flashed yellow. Beeps filled the lounge as it rattled against the glass.
    “Drat. Hang on.” Stewart placed his thumb on top. “Hey sweets, I’m kinda busy, why don’t you…”
    “Stewart?” Sarah’s voice answered. “Where are you? Carrie’s already blown out the candles!”

Just by looking through this list, a couple trends are obvious. As we move from telling to showing, everything feels less remote and more real. Second, every time we show more, the number of words goes up. That makes it a trade off. When the subject matter is critical to the story, this trade off is great. When it’s trivial, all those words can get you into trouble.

Now I’ll go through each of these shades separately, and discuss when they might be appropriate in a story.

1. Conclusion

Example

Stewart had a gambling problem.

If you pulled aside your aunt and declared her son had a gambling problem, she would almost certainly ask why you thought so. She wouldn’t just take your word for it; her son is important to her, and you’re making a bold accusation without evidence.

Readers aren’t any different. If you simply give them a conclusion statement like this, they’ll expect you to demonstrate it the next time the character, place, or item enters the story. If they watch it and see no sign of the gambling problem, arrogance, or superior intelligence you’ve told them about, they’ll feel misled.

Your audience might not question a throwaway line about someone they don’t know, who will never be mentioned again. But even then, your story will be more memorable if you take it up a notch by recounting something that person did to leave an impression.

That’s why conclusions should be used sparingly. Sometimes they’re necessary for clarity, emphasis, or to summarize something trivial, but they can rarely stand on their own.

2. Exposition

Example

Stewart lost all his credits betting on war simulations, but he kept plugging in for more.

Here you have a few facts that a sleuth could verify. From this, your audience can conclude that Stewart had a gambling problem. But it still feels distant; there’s no time or place attached to it. It might as well be hearsay from a nosy neighbor or a trashy tabloid.

For insignificant details, though, it could be just right. If you need to explain why your hero takes the scenic route home, you can simply state that people on the short path are carried off by flying monkeys on occasion.* Unless this figment aids the story overall, you should stop there. Don’t write a paragraph detailing a traumatic experience behind the hero’s choice of roadway.

However, if this anecdote supports the plot or character development, exposition won’t be enough. You’ll need to show more.

3. Background

Example

Stewart spent every Saturday plugged in, putting credits on war simulations. Last month he’d even missed his daughter’s birthday. He never told his family when he lost more than he could afford, but they’d know because electronics would disappear from the house soon after.

Now there’s more specifics. Stewart doesn’t just gamble in general; he does it every Saturday. It’s also more observable. It’s unusual to directly witness someone’s bank account going dry. However, the people around him would notice his frequent absences – he wasn’t even at his daughter’s birthday party! – and the swindled electronics.

Your readers might feel like a neighbor or friend of the family looking back. They were there when the fallout of Stewart’s gambling problem was affecting the family, but it was years ago. They don’t remember specific incidences, just general experiences. You can make their memory sharper by using specific words instead of general ones. Simply removing “electronics” and replacing it with “a decompresser or transport buffer” will make it feel closer to real life.

Summaries like these are a good choice for fleshing out central elements with details that aren’t important on their own. It can add useful context to characters and places that are being introduced without dwelling on them. That’s why thoughts and backstory often occur at this level. In a scene, the character might encounter something that triggers their memory and either think about their experiences with it or tell someone about it.

4. Summarized Scene

Example

Stewart was having another unlucky Saturday in the virtual gaming lounge. He’d fenced the holographic projector for more credits to bet on war simulations, but he was still cleaned out by sundown. He asked Marty to give him just one bet on the house – hadn’t he earned it? But Marty wouldn’t have it. He was about to trade in his communicator when it received a first priority signal. It was Sarah. She told him Carrie’s birthday party was almost over.

We’ve moved away from general knowledge to a specific experience. The readers are convinced that Stewart has a gambling problem because they observed it when they went to the lounge with him just last week. But there’s still a buffer between them and the emotional impact of this event. If it’s a critical turning point, it won’t make the impression that it should.

Yet it uses only a fraction of the words that a full scene demands. If the event is required for the plot to move forward, but it’s so mundane the audience could get bored, then summarizing it will allow the story to continue without alienating anyone.

It’s also a great way to set the stage for a scene. Perhaps the main conflict in this scene is between Sarah and Stewart. You might summarize up to the point that Stewart answers the signal from his communicator, and then launch into extended dialogue from there. Or if this story is about Stewart’s vendetta against medi-gel smugglers, the summary could establish character details before the smugglers arrive.

However, if this is a story about Stewart’s gambling problem, then a summary won’t do. In that case it deserves the spotlight.

5. Full Scene

Example

“Come on, just one more bet, you know I’m good for it. Hey look – I’ll give you my communicator.” Stewart pulled a black disc from his front pocket and slid it across the counter toward Marty. “It’s a geniune H47 model, not even on the market yet.”
Marty’s brows went up. He put down his dish towel and reached for the gadget. But just before his fingers closed around it, it flashed yellow. Beeps filled the lounge as it rattled against the glass.
“Drat. Hang on.” Stewart placed his thumb on top. “Hey sweets, I’m kinda busy, why don’t you…”
“Stewart?” Sarah’s voice answered. “Where are you? Carrie’s already blown out the candles!”

This is just a small sample of what a full scene would entail because they require a lot of space. Scenes are distinguished by how they communicate real-time, sensory information. They describe sights, sounds, touches, smells and tastes in a way that places the reader inside the viewpoint character’s head. The effect should be similar to watching a film with a couple exceptions. First, good scenes have thoughts and feelings added in. Second, a written story can’t communicate as much visual information as a film. Long descriptions of complex movements – such as fight choreography – rarely turn out well.

Every writer has to decide just how much to show during a scene. This sample says, “Marty’s brows went up,” but another writer might put, “Marty looked surprised.” Generally, you want to show as much as you can without becoming tedious or sacrificing clarity. The raised brows are probably a good choice here; surprise is simple to show. But we don’t have the language to show every emotion this way. In addition, while the context in this sample makes it clear that the black disc is a communicator, just calling it a communicator might be necessary elsewhere.

Scenes require a lot of time from the reader; your choice of what deserves a full scene can make or break your novel. New writers often make the mistake of giving trivial moments full scenes, while referring to important events in passing. Its importance to the story is the deciding factor. If it’s part of the main conflict, a moment of character change, or a turning point in a central relationship, all-out showing is the best bet. Otherwise, ask yourself if you want it to be a scene simply because you like it, or if you’re trying to give out information your readers don’t need to know.

And let’s not forget, none of these shades are used in isolation. Scenes are sprinkled with background thoughts, and dialogue often contains a little exposition and conclusion. Weaving them together will give your work richness and variety.

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Comments

  1. Hunter_Wolf

    Fantastic article Chris, i always heard critics asking writers to “Show, don’t tell” but none actually got in depth about how it can be done like here.

    Creating different shades that gradually go from “telling” to “showing” with a couple of intermediary steps in between was a really good idea, it increases the usefullness of the “Show, don’t tell” principle ten folds.

    I also noticed in your examples that the “Full Scene” is pretty much like a movie script, the intermediary stage between a novel and a movie, i guess i get it now why it’s really important for the director and everyone involved that the senario writer do their job right translating the story from text to visuals and how much it could impact the movie badly if he messed it up.

    A final thought, not sure you have an experiance with making comics/manga or not, but i think if i wanted to apply this same advice to a comic there will be a bunch of differences, some i think will be radical due to the fact that comics are very visual compared to novels (they are found as the second intermediary step between novels and movies in the form of storyboards built upon the script), that said they still lack sounds, voices and full motion .. personally i found it difficult to get the right balance between dialog and visuals (instead of the conflict between showing and telling in novels), sometimes there is just too much dialog it clogs the panels, other times there is very little to say, i guess it falls to body language, facial expressions and scene framing as well as visual symbolism and visual gags (in case of comedy) to enhance a comic’s density of information without using too much dialog, i know this is an entierly different beast but i just thought l’d ask your opinion.

    Either way your articles are still extremely helpful for me when first writing the senario and characters of any comic i plan to make.

    Thanks and keep it up.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I do find it interesting how movies and comics incorporate telling – generally through voice over/narration, montages, and explanatory dialogue – but unfortunately that’s outside my area of expertise. Let me know if you find some good information on that.

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