Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Show Or Tell?

I like showing, and I like telling. But which do I like most? There’s only one way to find out… Discuss.

To be honest, I was well into adulthood with probably about three books under my belt before I properly grasped the concept of ‘show don’t tell.’ I went to writing groups and read how to write books and sought critical feedback and did everything I could think to do to improve, but the ‘show don’t tell’ rule always reared its ugly head. And I struggled.

I struggled for two reasons; the first one was that I didn’t really know what ‘showing’ was. And then when I did work it out, sometimes ‘telling’ just felt better.

So, with that in mind I shall clarify.

Showing is the description of events which allow the reader to experience the story through the action, words and senses of the character. It’s like a picture in writing; the reader can look at it and work out what’s going on without you having to tell them. Ernest Hemingway called it the Iceberg Theory, or the theory of omission, where what is not said is just as important (if not more so) than what is said. You give the clues and allow the issues to emerge.

The whole process of showing allows the reader to engage with the text by expecting them to fill in the blanks and use their brain. You have to respect your reader to do this, to develop their own understanding of the action without detailing everything and laying it all out for them, but generally this makes for a much more enjoyable reading experience.

For the writer, it’s the creative challenge; the thing which gets my pulse racing and leaves me with a warm fuzzy glow when I’ve done a good job.

But, there are times when telling it how it is, is the right and proper thing to do. If you wrote a whole novel showing everything, you would have one seriously long narrative to get through. Showing requires more words so telling may cover a greater period of time more succinctly. And also, those between scene moments need to be 'told', to help the story progress and keep the pace. Telling is a legitimate shortcut which will help you and the reader move to the important drama.

So what’s it to be? Show or tell; action or exposition; painting a picture or writing a list? I guess the trick is getting the balance just right.

What do you think?


  1. The point is to convey the story - not talk about it. So both showing and telling will be needed in the right places.
    Leaving it all to the reader is too vague, pointing it all out too didactic.
    Thank you for the post.

  2. A great start on your blog, Wendy. Top tips for those budding writers out there and LOVE your background wallpapery thingy! Top stuff.

  3. The trick I find is to figure out which bits of the narrative to shine a spotlight on. If it's important to the story then it's got to be on the stage, in the spotlight. But what's important to the story? Whatever makes it turn. Congratulations on your first post!

  4. Ooh - thanks for comments. Brill!

  5. Great Blog Wendy. I also love your doodle background, takes me right back to my school exercise books...

  6. Hello! Nice post. I find it annoying when people insist that telling is a cardinal sin, when the important thing is actually to know when to tell and went to show, as you say.

  7. Absolutely. I agree with all the above.
    But just out of interest, there's a lot of telling in Dickens too - and that didn't cut the length one jot!
    Great background, as others have said.

  8. Thank you everyone for your comments. Eleanor - very true about Dickens. As you say, no short cuts there :)

  9. What a brilliant first blog post, Wendy! And yes, it's in finding that balance and figuring out when it's right to tell and when to show that leaves many of us tearing our hair out!

  10. Yep yep yep...
    REALLY like your definition of showing, Wendy - 'description of events that allows the reader to EXPERIENCE the story...
    And Candy's comment on how to choose what to show - what makes the story TURN.
    Showing and telling in a nutshell

    (Wanted to comment ages ago but nice man from BT has only just fixed our internet. For some reason I can read blogs on my phone but can't leave a comment.)


Thanks for commenting.