Showing vs. Telling: When Is Telling Okay?

by Jami Gold on October 8, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Woman whispering into another woman's ear with text: When Is Telling Okay?

Yay! We had another successful WANACon, and I can go back to sleeping more than 3-5 hours a night. *gives weak fist pump* (If you missed out, a single price gives you full access to all the workshop recordings and materials.)

I’ve even been able to write again over the last couple of days. Luckily, my characters hadn’t felt so abandoned that they went off in search of another writer to tell their story. *whew* Now, back to the blog…

We’ve probably all heard the advice to “show, don’t tell” more times than we can count. Like most advice, it’s worded as an absolute, making it seem as though telling is never okay.

Once we’re experienced, we know that’s not true. Some telling is absolutely okay, and in certain cases, is preferable to showing.

My guest post by Janice Hardy last week did a fabulous job at demonstrating the differences between showing and telling and why “showing” creates stronger connections between the reader and the story. But if that’s true, wouldn’t we always want to show?

Or, to point out an observation commenter ChemistKen made on that post, how much showing is enough?

“Two of the “before” versions sounded pretty darn good to me.”

I don’t disagree. In fact, at the bottom of my post, I said:

“Sometimes it’s not just about showing. Janice’s “before” examples on tips #3 and #4 have showing and some lines that might be internal thoughts. … But Janice’s examples … go even deeper, like with those goals and stakes in the “after” examples.”

Let’s talk about various situations and why we might decide to show or tell depending on the circumstances.

Tweaking the Amount of Emphasis

One thing Janice’s examples made clear is that we usually need more words to show than to tell. Each of her “before” examples was a paragraph, and most of her “after” examples were several paragraphs, about half a page of words.

There’s nothing wrong with an event taking up more or less words—unless we unintentionally mislead the reader with the amount of emphasis. We generally don’t want to unintentionally do anything, especially if it might negatively affect the reader’s understanding.

Our words act like a tour guide to readers, telling them what to notice. The simple fact that we point something out means that we’re telling readers to pay attention to that element.

So when we use a lot of words for a plot point, character observation, or narrative description, we’re telling the reader “This is important.” Half a page of words on something that doesn’t deserve that much emphasis should probably instead use narrative summary to share the details the reader needs to know.

The opposite is true as well. An important plot or emotional turning point should take up a lot of words. These are the times to pull out every trick we know to expand the amount of words used: showing, visceral responses, internalization, etc.

As a bonus, being aware of this “more words equals more emphasis” guideline means we can intentionally mislead readers. Want to bury a clue? Limit it to a short phrase or sentence in the middle of a paragraph, and most readers won’t consciously recognize it as a clue, yet we’re not cheating the reader by withholding information.

Transitions and Traveling Scenes

Going along with the above point, if we have a scene that’s just trying to get the characters, story, and/or the reader from here to there, telling works great. If nothing happens during a car ride, we don’t need the play-by-play.

Phrases like “after she arrived” are telling. But they work if we’re just trying to get the character from point A to point B.

If the point of a scene is the next encounter with the bad guy, the reader doesn’t need a half page of character drama with the unimportant things leading up to that. In fact, that show-every-thought-in-her-head approach could easily seem melodramatic.

A guideline here might be that if we need to tell for a transition or traveling scene, then we should get in and get out with our “telling interruption” as quickly as possible. Yes, we have a legitimate reason for telling here, but that doesn’t mean we should go on for a paragraph or more.

Repetitive Information

In general, we don’t want redundant information in our stories. We don’t need to repeat the goals, stakes, or motivations every couple of paragraphs. If we did, not only would that be annoying to the reader, but the characters could also seem too “woe is me” for dwelling on it so much.

This is why Janice’s “before” examples from tips #3 and #4 don’t seem as bad as some of the others:

“The pharmacy door was busted open, the drawers ransacked and empty. She swore and moved on to the nurses’ stations, checking every cart and drawer she passed. At a broken vending machine, she paused to fish out a candy bar stuck in the back, then continued her search for antibiotics. They had to be there somewhere. Bob didn’t have much time left.”

“Jane crept into the abandoned emergency room, eyes alert for zombies. She avoided the broken glass and pools of dried blood and made her way to the pharmacy. It was a long shot, but Bob’s fever was getting worse and if she couldn’t find him some antibiotics he’d probably die. Her chest tightened. She couldn’t let that happen. No way. They had things to talk about. Things to finally admit to each other.”

Those “before” examples include some showing, visceral responses, and internalization. In other words, they’re not “bad.”

However, Janice was demonstrating how we can use deep point of view to add information like goals, motivations, and stakes. Her “after” examples layer those elements in with the showing and internalization that’s already partially there.

If those elements are already covered for the scene, we don’t need to expand the showing even more to include them again. Remember, these examples are excerpts, which means we’re missing the context we’d normally have around them in a scene.

If we’d just finished a segment with Jane freaking out over the situation and then getting her act together to focus on her mission, we certainly wouldn’t need to rehash those elements in these segments. That would be repetitive, which can be just as annoying—if not more so—to the reader as “telling” incidents.

Not every paragraph like those “before” examples above needs to be expanded with more showing, especially if we’re not trying to emphasize the details and/or we’re just transitioning to something else. Janice was sharing a technique, not an applies-in-all-cases instruction.

In other words, as a general rule, we need to balance showing, emphasis, goals/motivations/stakes, and pacing. Some types of showing—unimportant details or repetitive information—should be avoided or it could slow down the pace of our stories.

The goal with all our writing, regardless of technique, is to keep the reader engaged in the story, turning pages because of the tension and stakes. Not all showing will meet that goal, and that’s how we can decide when to tell. No matter how full of showing it is, a scene of a character watching paint dry isn’t likely to be engaging to readers. *smile*

This is the last week to register for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Do you disagree with any of my exceptions to the “show, don’t tell” rule? Do you have any additions to the list? How do you decide when to show or tell? Do you struggle with knowing how much showing is enough? Or when telling is acceptable (and maybe even preferred)?

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19 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Stephen del Mar October 8, 2013 at 8:31 am

Thank you. This clarified a lot for me.

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Jami Gold October 8, 2013 at 9:08 am

Hi Stephen,

Glad I could help! I know this is something I struggle with as well. 🙂

As I said, my first reaction to Janice’s #3 and #4 “before” examples were, “Wait, that’s not good enough?” That’s why I paid attention to why she went deeper–demonstrating that deep POV can be used for more than just showing. So I wanted to add some context to that idea and let people know that going deeper for goals, motivations, and stakes would be something we’d need to do once a scene, not in every single paragraph. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Aidee Ladnier October 8, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Great companion piece to your previous post. I’m a new writer and trying out lots of methods to increase the amount I show in a story. One thing I’ve noticed is that showing changed the pace of my comedy writing. I’m trying to find a balance (especially with humorous scenes) that will pack the biggest punch. Sometimes, telling helps keep the fast pace of physical comedy which can be bogged down with lots of needless details.

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Jami Gold October 8, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Hi Aidee,

Great addition to the list! Yes, I love finding just the right rhythm for my sentences and scenes, and sometimes we need the tight, punchy telling phrase to get it right. Thanks for the comment!

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chemistken October 8, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Thanks for the mention, Jami. 🙂

I think it’s best when you have a nice mix of showing and telling. Too much telling leaves the story flat, while too much showing bogs it down. The hardest thing for me when writing is knowing my sentences are telling, but not knowing how to fix it without sounding clumsy.

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Jami Gold October 8, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Hi ChemistKen,

No problem! As I mentioned, I had the same thought you did to some of the examples, which is why it’s so important to keep our goals for what we want to accomplish with the segment in mind.

I definitely struggle to get deeper into my characters’ POV sometimes. During those times, everything seems clumsy. When I’m deep into their experience, the showing comes easier for me. So maybe some exercises to get into their head would help? Thanks for the comment!

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Jeanette O'Hagan October 9, 2013 at 6:57 am

Hi Jami

Great post as usual. I’ve noticed that showing can expand a paragraph to a chapter. Sometimes this is what is needed but I agree with you that this is not always a good thing – and we need to keep in mind the goal – what we are trying achieve – and to avoid giving too much emphasis to trivial scenes or repetitive scenes. I love your suggestion re burying clues by making them seem unimportant – I’ve done this myself.

Sometimes think rules such as “never use and adverb” or “show don’t tell become” become rules that are applied ruthlessly (sorry adverb alert) without thinking about the purpose and context.

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Jami Gold October 9, 2013 at 10:00 am

Hi Jeanette,

LOL! Yes, very true about how showing can make paragraphs explode. I’ve taken a paragraph and “exploded” each sentence into its own paragraph many times. But I’ve also done the reverse to tweak that emphasis and pacing.

It’s more important to know the reasons behind a rule than to just know the rules. Only then will we understand why we might want to break it and know when that’s the right thing to do. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung October 9, 2013 at 9:16 pm

An important topic!

To be honest, I completely disregard the “show, not tell” rule nowadays, simply because I read too many novels that tell a lot yet are nevertheless very successful novels. Successful in that they engage my attention, and move, or even inspire me. It could be because I read a lot of literary classics, which are often very tell-y to begin with, haha. And as in chemistken’s comment, maybe it’s also because I read a lot of fantasy. I think I told you that what I mainly read are literary classics and fantasy. So, since we’re often heavily influenced by the examples we’ve read, it’s not surprising that I would view “telling” much more favorably than a lot of (or even the majority of) other writers, lol. Some writers even seem to think that telling is a sin. O_o

That said, I agree that showing has its advantages too, so I don’t want to restrict myself. I will show when I feel like something needs showing, and tell when I think something needs telling. Being able to judge which method to use in which specific situation, rather than imposing a “must tell all” or “must show all” rule, would be much wiser, in my opinion. I definitely agree with your points on the specific instances where telling would be better than showing. I personally think that showing has been overhyped, and telling has been under-appreciated and even overly and unfairly despised, lol. Maybe it’s just because I’ve seen too many examples where telling was very effectively done–at least, it was very effective on me. In fact, many of my favorite passages in books were telling! E.g. telling directly what the character’s emotions or philosophies are, or describing directly what kind of personality qualities they have. Jane Austen does a wonderful job on this sort of telling, at least to me. I really love it when she describes her characters’ feelings and emotions! This is definitely telling, not showing via physical gestures or dialogue. Dostoyevsky’s passages where he directly tells the reader by what life philosophy his character relies on, are also some of my favorite passages.

I do appreciate showing too, of course. Like showing a character’s personality by how they speak, and more importantly, WHAT they choose to speak about, or what they most often think about, and what they perceive. It’s also nice to be shown how two characters’ relationship to each other is like by watching their interactions. Showing a character’s mood or state of mind via pathetic fallacy descriptions of the setting also works for me.

Going back to telling, one other instance where telling is good that I can think of, is when telling will CONFIRM what the reader has long suspected and thus gives him/her the satisfaction of having guessed right. For instance, I suspected that he was harboring X kinds of feelings towards character A, and I become very pleased when the narrator confirms that I was right.

In short, I like BOTH showing and telling. I think they should be equally respected because they each have their own strengths. I mean, by saying that showing is superior to telling, to me, is like saying that the 1st person POV is superior to the 3rd person. (Not an exact analogy, but you get my drift, lol.)

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Jami Gold October 9, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Hi Serena,

I agree that telling can be very effective when done well. I think the preference for showing has grown out of the same reason that omniscient is less popular now. People want to experience a story, not just read it. Not every reader, to be sure, but in general, that seems to be the case. So I think you’re right that in many ways, it is similar to a discussion of 3rd vs. 1st person POV.

As you said, no matter our personal preference, it’s good to recognize that both showing and telling have their place and to use the most effective method as situations call for it. For me personally, since I love subtext so much (possibly too much 😉 ), I have to use telling sometimes to make the motivations and whatnot clear. Otherwise, those insights would be too buried in the subtext for some readers to pick up. So I definitely think a balance is key.

Great points about when showing really works well! I love dialogue and banter, so those types of interactions are some of my favorite snippets of showing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins October 15, 2013 at 2:47 am

I tend to feel caught in the middle here. Or I switch back and forth in some odd semi-subconscious way.

With Gabriel (My forthcoming debut) I told too much. In part because of my learning curb, but just as true, Showing DOES take more words, and if all the beta-readers/craft books you consult put brevity and simplicity above all else, it’s easy to make oneself go mad!

My current WIP, the exact opposite problem, I show “too much.”

As someone who tries to learn from book to another, this is driving me nuts. Compounding the issue further is that I’m one of those seemingly few writers who wants their setting to be an active character in the story. But when you write fantasy as I do, writing about an imagined setting without sounding like a travelogue is NOT easy.

Versus say writing about a subset of New York or California where you have real life pinnings to point to. But since I find that kind of research too onerous, I have to instead “weave” setting in, and as someone who knits or makes clothes by hand knows (I don’t, just using the apt metaphor…), it’s hard to do that with words alone.

I don’t think “show versus tell is always a disguised “1st versus 3rds POV” issue, though. At least not in the direct way Serena implies. Especially in YA where many modern stories are told via first person, and are not the least bit omniscient for the very reason that immediacy of a subjective narrator is the point of the story.

That said, I have to make the case that third person isn’t always omniscient, but there isn’t always a bold line between a close third (That can read like first because it’s so tightly in one POV) and omniscent where no one character is the throughline of the story. As character driven as I am, I’m not anti-omniscent either, even if the vast majority are, and I blame my favorite television shows for part of that pull and tug in my own writing.

I struggle here all the time because I sometimes find one sole POV too limiting. I like knowing other characters perspectives, I feel that give a more deep and rounded view of the characters than just the protagonist’s view.

That’s something comics, television and film can do easier than text-only books. So Jami, I feel compelled to ask,

Just because I have one primary POV doesn’t mean I don’t want to find ways for other characters to shine, for lack of a better word, and still not bore/confuse the reader.

The MC might not like a certain way of looking at things his best friend (Who is a KEY character, for the sake of argument) would, and that will effect the story told. How do you infer that if you’re limited to only one character’s POV?

I know multi-POV is common in romance, but for those of us who write OUTSIDE romance, this is a hard thing to work through. What can we do?

Reply

Jami Gold October 15, 2013 at 7:45 am

Hi Taurean,

Oh! Yes, you’re right about that “setting as an active character” problem. I tried making the setting a “character” in one of my stories and had the same problem. None of the beta readers cared. They were all like, “Eh, I skimmed that part.” *sigh* I haven’t touched that story for a long time, so I don’t know if I’d have a better handle on it now or not, but if I figure anything out, I’ll let you know. 🙂

As for your question, you’re right that romance does multi-character close 3rd POV, but it isn’t the only genre that does. Any of these “rules” about whose head you stay in can be broken if it’s done well. Even in romance, where the POV is “supposed” to stick to the hero and heroine, I’ve seen some romance stories that go into a third or even fourth POV characters for story reasons.

If you have a good story reason (especially one that raises the stakes/tension and doesn’t lower them) and it’s done well, the rules can be broken. 🙂 I hope that helps. Thanks for the comment!

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