On Showing vs. Telling

If you've heard "show, don't tell!" but aren't sure just what it means in terms of writing, then this article's for you. If you haven't heard of showing vs. telling at all, then this article is also very much for you. We're going to look at what showing vs. telling is, why showing is often preferable to telling, and then, why you shouldn't show instead of tell in some cases.

Table of Contents

What showing and telling are.

In essence, telling is giving a conclusive statement or description of something in your story, be it a place, person, or situation. On the other hand, showing involves describing facts and qualities that can be used to logically infer what you're trying to convey about something. Here are some examples:

Telling: Miki was a very messy artist.

Showing: Miki's hair had been pulled into a saggy bun from which flyaway strands stuck out in all directions. Her shirt was mussed and wrinkled, and her hands were splattered and smudged with paint.

Telling: The cat got angry.

Showing: The cat's ears swiveled back against its head, and its face pulled into a snarl. It rose to up its feet with an arched back and snarled.

Telling: It was a beautiful spring day in the village.

Showing: A gentle breeze carried the scent of apple blossoms across the sun-warmed village.

Why you might show, rather than tell.

To build up atmosphere. Imagining things that would stimulate the senses in real life causes the mind to respond with emotions and feelings associated with the real thing. You can say that the tavern is repulsively filthy, but they probably won't feel truly repulsed until you show them the grime caked onto the furniture and the dog hair floating in the soup and give them a whiff of the acrid scent of too many filthy bodies crammed into a tiny place and the odor of rotting meat coming from somewhere in the back.

To make the audience really believe in what's supposed to be going on. For example, you can say that your villain is evil and you can even have characters talk about the awful things your villain does, but nothing will really convince an audience of a villain's awfulness like showing the villain doing something horrendous will. Likewise, it's easier to believe in a character's passion for some hobby or interest if you actually show the character behaving passionately over this hobby or interest rather than just saying the character is passionate about it.

To give people the a chance to figure things out for themselves. Putting the facts and details together and figuring things out for oneself can be very gratifying for people. Plus, if you're running a roleplay where players are supposed to figure things out and solve problems for themselves, showing rather than telling is often vital.

To let people make up their own minds. Many people tend to chafe if they feel like a writer or game master is trying to force their perceptions, particularly if they don't agree with the writer or GM's view on things. For example, if one says that a city is the most beautiful city ever built and then ascribes qualities to it that are subjective (not everyone is going to favor the same elements in design and architecture), then many won't be able to agree that the city is the most beautiful ever and may get annoyed at the insistence that it is. But if one just describes the city and lets people think of it what they will, this problem is averted.

Showing over telling is often good, but..!

You may have heard some people say "show, don't tell!" as if it's something you should or must always to do write a good story, but this simply isn't true. If you're writing about something that neither builds up atmosphere nor shows off something important to the plot, the "show, don't tell" rule can be ignored - and probably should be to avoid bogging a story down with needless detail.

Let's say that someone is trying to write a scene where the protagonists are discussing their plans for storming the enemy's stronghold, and this scene is intended to build up to the story's climax. The writer decides to throw in that a character grabs a piece of fruit from the fruit bowl while discussing plans. In this case, the action of eating the fruit is trivial to what's going on and lavishing too much attention on it would detract from the suspense and anticipation that the scene was supposed to be building up. So in this case, "Cally picked an apple out of the bowl and took a bite" would be preferable to "Cally wrapped her spidery fingers around a glossy red apple, lifted it to her mouth, and sunk her teeth into the crisp flesh."

There's also no need to show things that are completely mundane and familiar to audiences unless you're writing from the perspective of someone who is unfamiliar with them. Zorban from Planet Glormoth might pick up "a round, red, glistening fruit that tapers gently to the bottom," but Lucy from Louisiana should just pick up "a shiny red apple."

So in summary:

You might also be interested in:

Describing Your Character: Tips & Advice
Common, Yet Terrible Character Descriptors - And How To Fix Them (And Write Better Descriptions In General)
So You Want To Have An Attractive Character?
Dropping In Characterization Without Dragging The Story
Writing Better Prompts, Starters, & Beginnings: A Few Pointers
Tips For Describing & Summarizing Your Story & Pitching Your Plot Ideas

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