Showing and Telling - a more detailed look at the how and why



Feedback from clients tells me that while ‘show don’t tell’ is something of a writer’s mantra, it can be tricky to find specific information relating to the mechanics. Here are some brief examples, with explanations: 


Showing – this is anything happening in the moment, right now. A writer uses showing to take us through real-time moments of a character’s life, whilst they’re unfolding. Simple examples include, ‘She pulled out a chair and sat down,’ and, ‘The leaves crunched underfoot as Anna crossed the lawn.’ Both these sentences deal with things which are happening now, so we’re mentally watching them unfold at the same time as the character experiences them. Using past or present tense doesn’t affect this: ‘She pulls out a chair and sits down,’ is showing, just as, ‘The leaves crunch underfoot as Anna crosses the lawn’ is showing. 


Telling – this is anything which has already happened. It’s basically an explanation of sorts. The character might refer back to events, or might reminisce about them, review them or explain them to the reader – if it’s in the past and it’s already happened, it’s telling. Some coaches/editors refer to telling as ‘exposition’. Telling might read as, ‘That morning as she’d pulled out a chair and sat down, Bill had warned her that…’ or, ‘The leaves had crunched underfoot as Anna had crossed the lawn on her way to discover Melanie’s body frozen in the snow.’ 


The reason that showing is considered more vibrant than telling is because readers like to follow characters as they experience things in-the-moment, rather than reading a review about things which have already happened. So, if Bill is going to issue a warning to our female narrator after she’s pulled out her chair and sat down, then it’s much more fun for us readers to feel her discomfort as she sees (in real time) the grim downturn of his mouth and the nervous tick in his cheek – she doesn’t know what’s coming, and so us readers don’t, either. This builds suspense. Likewise, if Anna is going to discover Melanie dead on the lawn, then carry us readers with her in the moment. That way, we’ll witness Melanie’s outstretched body under a fine covering of white, her lashes crisped by ice, at the moment Anna sees her. This will help us to feel Anna’s shock. What isn’t quite so dramatic for the reader is having all this unfolded in hindsight, because there’s no shock for the character (who’s now reviewing what happened). Crucially, we know that our narrator/lead character is OK, because these past events are most likely being related from a position of safety. When Anna discovers Melanie on the lawn in-the-moment, we don’t know how Melanie died – she might’ve been murdered, and whoever did it might still be lurking in the trees watching Anna, waiting to pounce. This brings tension to the story. Related in hindsight, we’d assume that Anna is now home safely, and has probably already called the police, because the discovery of Melanie’s body is in the past. This is why showing brings things to life in the moment, whereas telling deadens the drama by relegating them to the past. 


Clients sometimes ask, ‘But how can I write a ‘past’ thread in showing, if it happened fifty years before my main story?’ There’s a simple fix. Just let the reader know the story is set back in time, and then ‘show’ events from fifty years ago, as though they’re happening right now. Reading as a writer will illustrate that this is generally how double timeline novels unfold. You’ll see that chapters or sections written in the past are often headed by a date or a character’s name to situate us readers; sometimes, chapters or sections set in the past are written in italics (for exactly the same reason – so that they stand out as belonging to a different timeline). In a novel with a changing timeline, a skilled writer can situate us readers in an era so strongly that, once the story gets going, mere mention of a character’s name will flag up which historical period that particular chapter is devoted to. 


Telling which works: anything brief, punchy, emotionally vivid, or relating to the scene unfolding at that moment, will work well as telling. Examples might be things like, ‘Arram had beaten Mo to within an inch of his life,’ or, ‘She’d always hated that jacket – it reminded her of the time he’d had too much red wine and had collapsed in front of her boss, costing her a promotion.’ These are past events, they’re being explained, so they’re telling, but if Mo is having PTSD flashbacks in the here-and-now, and if our female narrator is right now grittily watching her estranged husband at an awkward family gathering, then the ‘told’ info is taut enough to earn its place within the in-the-moment showing. Best avoided are big chunks of text which explain a character’s upbringing/characteristics/which stand out as information-dumps, at the point that character is introduced into the narrative. Also out are long passages devoted to explaining episodes from a character’s past. Professional readers are quick to spot a writer who hasn't yet arrived at a fully commercial draft, and clumsy use of 'telling' is one of the giveaways. 


Sometimes, clients will name an author they absolutely love, and will point out that author uses telling freely. Clients wonder why they’ve been advised not to do the same. Here are some reasons that a published author might get away with more telling than an aspiring debut author: 


Some writers, like Adrian Tchaikovsky and Anne Enright, for eg, write vividly enough to get away with telling in chunks - check them out, and work out how and why they’ve achieved it (this is reading as a writer, and it’s vital to the craft). 

Other writers, like Jilly Cooper and Jeff Van Der Meer, for eg, already have such a fan following that they can get away with breaking the show-don’t-tell rules and still be widely read. Aspiring debut novelists won’t get this luxury.

Some older fiction features elements which today’s writer wouldn’t get away with. This can be anything from world-building exposition in epic fantasy, to the kind of explanatory oration which appears in Fleming’s Bond novels (which isn’t stylistically fashionable enough be signed today). This is why it’s best to avoid some bestselling novels as an influence for your own writing. 


All us writers need to move with the times, which is why it’s necessary to read new voices (alongside the old favourites) to keep abreast of today’s market. As Harry Bingham notes in How to Write a Novel, ‘You must write for the market as it is today. If you don’t feel like it, feel free to write for yourself and for your friends. Just give up any thought of commercial publication.’


22nd December 2022


Read an earlier article on 'Show Don't Tell' here

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