Creative-Writing Tips: How to Find a Balance Between Showing and Telling

Creative-Writing Tips: How to Find a Balance Between Showing and Telling

Although ‘telling’ has a terrible reputation in the writing world, it’s really not as bad as most aspiring writers think.  

We tell as writers all the time, and most of it goes right past readers and doesn’t bother anyone.

The problems appear when the telling shoves readers aside and makes them feel as though they’re watching from a distance and not experiencing the story along with the characters.

Sometimes it’s OK to tell.

Telling is a perfectly valid technique for certain tasks, so you shouldn’t be afraid to use this tool when you need to.

If showing is going to detract from events unfolding in the scene, or draw too much attention to what’s not important, it might be better to tell. It’s also better to tell if showing is going to bog down the story or bore the reader, such as relaying every punch or kick thrown in a lengthy fight.

Here are some times when telling frequently works better than showing.

Telling to catch characters up

A great example of an acceptable tell is the “catching up another character” scene.

Something has happened to one character, and they reach a point where they have to inform other characters about a scene the reader has already seen dramatized.

Say your protagonist, Bob, has just been out scouting and found a huge nest of zombies acting very un-zombielike. Readers have read the scene, and now Bob is back with his group and needs to let them know what he saw.

Which would be better: telling a short summary, or showing Bob relaying the scene readers just read? Dramatizing it is going to bore your reader, so a quick telling summary works better to keep the story moving.

For example:

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bob said, tossing back half his Scotch. He told them about the nest down by the river, the freakish way the zombies had moved, and the almost-organized way they’d worked together. His hands were shaking by the end.

“Wow,” Jane whispered.

He nodded. “Yeah. Wow.”

This doesn’t stop the story to relay information readers already know.

Telling for dramatic impact

Sometimes it’s also better to tell when you want to add narrative distance for dramatic effect, such as pulling away from the point-of-view character to convey that “dum dum dum!” sense of impending doom. This happens most often with the words wondered, hoped and prayed.

For example:

  • She watched him ride away and hoped he’d never come back.
  • He wondered if Lila had seen Chuck that night.
  • They prayed it was the last time.

Pulling back from the point-of-view character in such cases actually increases the tension instead of lessening it. It’s common to find such tells used as hooks at the end of scenes or chapters.

Telling to convey necessary information

Let’s be honest—it’s impossible to show everything in a novel, and no one wants to read all those details anyway. But sometimes readers need to know certain information and there’s no easy way to convey it. Info dumps and backstory are the only way to slip that information into the book.

When you must dump, add the information as seamlessly as possible so it doesn’t jump out of the story and draw attention to itself. You want readers to enjoy the lecture and feel as though they learned something important, instead of being handed a brochure about the book.

There’s already a lot of telling in a novel, even if it’s not officially called that. You describe the setting, what someone does, what they say. It’s called storytelling for a reason.

The trick is to weave your tells in with your shows so readers never get the sense that the author is butting in to explain something to them.

Don’t be afraid to tell when you have to. Just make sure that when you do, you’re telling in a way that serves the story and keeps the reader interested.

Are there times when you prefer to tell versus show?

Filed Under: Craft
The Creative Class

Featured resource

Creative Class

Move from irregular client work and crappy pay to being a freelance leader in your field. Paul Jarvis, who’s been freelancing for 16+ years, shares his advice on pricing, positioning and more.

35 comments

  • David Throop says:

    Hi Janice,
    Thanks for the concrete examples you used. Too many articles only touch on the peripheral definitions of telling vs. showing, but the zombie example was on-point!

    To answer you, I prefer to tell if there is some significant event or aspect of the narration that would otherwise be cumbersome. Say some exposition is needed, I may tell it rather than incorporate it into the storytelling, if it makes sense for the reader.

  • Rowland C Johnston says:

    I’m writing an historical novel set in first century Rome, and the problems of exposition are never far away.

    I have found the Sherlock Holmes-Dr. Watson dynamic particularly useful. When Sulla begins his second march on Rome, my readers will discover what’s at stake from a character who must spell it out to my egghead protagonist.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      I love that period in history 🙂

      That’s one way to tell without “telling.” You have extra challenges with historicals since there’s so much worldbuilding and information to relay. That’s one genre when a little more telling is a lot more acceptable to readers.

  • This is a great help, thank you! I am working on my first novel, which is a historical mystery. It seems a bit difficult, because there is more telling needed for the historical part, but the mystery part, not so much. You do need to pull back and plant red herrings while being fair to the reader. There is a fine line. I am just in the planning stages now, but the actual writing is eluding me. This answers a few questions for me.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      That would be a tough genre since, as you said, the two sides pull you in opposite directions. When in doubt, keep it in the character’s voice and you’ll be good. As long as it sounds like the character speaking, most telling slips right by readers.

  • Cynthia Doss says:

    Thank you so much for this Janice. I have such a hard time with showing instead of telling, but I am getting better. This article really helped me understand how and when I can tell in a story. Sometimes in my stories I feel it’s necessary, but it’s been drilled into my head to show and not tell.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Most welcome, I’m glad it helped. We’ve all had that drilled into our heads, and it drove me crazy as a new writer (and eventually led to this book). Show, don’t tell is SO dependent on what else is going on in the scene and what the writer wants to convey that simple “do this, do that” rules don’t always work.

      Anytime it sounds or feels like you’re explaining something for the reader’s benefit, you’re likely telling. But if the information is something the character’s would share and they need that information at that moment, you’re probably showing. And if it’s not showing, then at least it sounds like the character and the tell slides by unnoticed and doesn’t jump out at readers and stop the story.

  • EmilyR says:

    I’m going to miss you posts on this topic! Thanks for all the great examples on your tour this month. I’ve found them very helpful, as I work on revising my MS.

  • Hailey says:

    This was very helpful, Janice; thanks!! I always have trouble with this, so I was glad to see it pop up in my inbox.

  • JC Martell says:

    My story spans three months, so I’m always looking for ways to tell that doesn’t disrupt too much. Your posts help a great deal.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Character voice is key. You can tell almost anything if you keep it in the character’s voice and it’s relevant to the scene.

  • Great examples. Like you said, there are certainly times where telling is okay. I’ll “tell” sometimes for pacing reasons. A quick action scene, for example, might be better off with shorter “telling” sentences to help convey the message to the reader that things have sped up. (“Bob ran. Jane aimed the gun at his back and pulled the trigger.”)

  • Tom Adams says:

    A great summary and some useful examples too.

  • Marilyn says:

    Just had that problem with my historical novel. My hero is nowhere near the rebel battle, but had met (Pio Pico) earlier and the rebels returning is vital to the next action. Wanted to tell what had occurred as it fits in with other things he had heard about Californio’s political intrigues. Since he was not acquainted with any of returning men, we just inserted a paragraph describing what had happened. It reads so differently than my usual action/dialogue style. Thought I could have someone tell him, but that didn’t work either. . . We’ll see if future edits change it . . .

  • Marilyn says:

    Went to your site and read some of your advice and figured out how to put the info into dialogue! With humor and all! (The vaqueros are in the cantina drinking toasts to the politicians!) Thanks!

  • Claire says:

    Thanks for this practical advice. Trying to go for a good mix in my sci-fi novel – when the whole world is made up it seems like you need to tell a fair bit!

    • Janice Hardy says:

      You do, which is why it’s a little more common in some genres. I’ve found showing the world in action, and having characters experience or interact with the world helps shows and gives you a logical reason to tell a little.

  • This is a great reminder! Thank you!

  • Beth says:

    Whenever I write and I’ve finished the manuscript, I read it out aloud. As I’m reading it I get this sense my story is flat. The other day I realised I was telling my story and not showing it. I looked through my MS and found whenever I wrote the following words: had, was, it, any word ending in -ed. It is as if I’ve managed by some small miracle to mix the tenses that include using -ing. I’ve changed some words but still feel as if I’m telling not showing. Any advice Janice on how I can fluff up my story. Your advice would be much appreciated. My settings are fine people tell me. My characters are fleshed out and yet I feel my story remains flat. Am I telling or am I showing my story? Oh yes, I’ve also added a lot of verbs. All action. So what am I doing wrong? Please help! Thank you.

    • Janice Hardy says:

      It’s hard to say without knowing anything about it, but when a story falls flat it’s often due to a lack of goals and/or stakes. You might try looking at what your core conflict is (the problem the book is about) and what the stakes are. If the characters don’t have personal reasons to solve that problem, and nothing bad happens to them if they fail to resolve it, then the story doesn’t matter. Readers have no reason to read it, so they don’t “care.”

      You might also check to see how predictable the story is. If the plot path is obvious or/and the protagonist never makes tough choices with real consequences and repercussions, it’s also hard for readers to care. There’s nothing to pique their curiosity to see how things turn out if it’s obvious what will happen next.

      Hope that helps!

  • Peter Buxton says:

    At last a sensible explanation of the show/tell dilemma. I’ve always felt so-called experts speak only from the writer’s view; not the reader’s, which is surely far more important.u

    • Janice Hardy says:

      Readers look at books differently than writers, so it is important to think about them 😉 And since writers know how things “should” be done, we’re much more critical about it.

  • Alana says:

    Great article Janice! I try to explain this to my authors all the time. I would love to link this in a future post.

  • Ashri Mishra says:

    Such a Nice Blog. it’s very Useful to me Thank You So Much For Share with Us.

  • Hello Janice, I am an aspiring writer. Just written a little bit, nothing good I am sure, I have a lot to learn, but I read a lot. And I have come across books that waste so much time explaining or describing things before they get to the point and I simply skip pages and pages of, in my opinion, useless information. I want to see action, events evolving into something. Discovering things about the characters along the way. So I really like your explanation about this “telling and showing”, I am new to the terms, but I understood how they work in the construction of a story.

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *