We are dream-weavers: on the writer's maxim of "show, don't tell"

By Michelle Barker

Understanding the difference between showing and telling in fiction

Show, don’t tell may be the most often cited piece of advice given to fiction writers—and yet it may also be the most commonly misunderstood. It took me years to get it—so I’m hoping this blog will shorten the learning curve for someone out there.

For most writers, our default setting is to tell a story rather than show it. We are storytellers after all. But it’s a misnomer. I believe it’s more helpful to think of writing along the lines of John Gardner’s fictional dream. We are dream-weavers, and the one thing we don’t want is for our dreamers (readers) to wake up. We want them to be so caught up in the dream of our fictional world, it’s as though they’re living it themselves.

The problem is, we tend to want to write about our story rather than diving in headfirst. We want to explain our way around it. We want to give information about a character rather than showing how they behave and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

How do we show instead of tell? By dramatizing. That’s what showing really is. We don’t tell our readers that Adam is jealous. We show that sideways glare he’s giving his girlfriend. We allow him to make a snide remark. We describe the bitter taste in his mouth. The word jealous might never even appear in the passage, but your readers will know without a doubt what Adam is suffering from.

Telling is the delivery of information as information. We tell the reader: “Adam was jealous” and then we move on, thinking the job is done. In more extreme examples of telling, we might stop the story completely to give a full description of how our world works or provide a life history of our protagonist, because we think our readers needs this information before they can read on. (Hint: don’t do these things.)

To dramatize, imagine your characters are on a stage.

When an editor says they want you to show something rather than telling it, they are asking for a scene. What is a scene? It is two or more characters interacting right in front of us as though they were up on stage. They will be talking to each other in a specific setting (the details of which you will have provided), and they will probably also be doing things (which you will make sure are relevant to the plot and fit with their character). Gestures will be involved, as will sensory detail. Readers might get a chance to know what one of them is thinking. Their feelings will probably be transmitted through their behaviour. And, most important of all: there will be conflict. These are characters who, for one reason or another, do not get along. Conflict is the life-blood of story. Without conflict, all you have is an anecdote, and your readers will have no impetus to find out how it ends.

Writing in scene keeps the story moving and produces an emotional experience for readers. Rather than telling readers what to think, you present the scene to them and allow them to draw their own conclusions.

For example, here is a statement of telling, rather than showing: “Tyler was the worst behaved child I had ever seen and his mother had no idea how to deal with him.”

What could we do to show this instead?

First of all, we’d want to choose a ripe setting for that scene: a restaurant, perhaps.

Show versus tell

What might Tyler be doing? Throwing food, having a tantrum. How might we show that his mother is not coping well? Perhaps she’s on her cell phone or is engaged in a conversation with a third person at the table, pointedly ignoring her son.

Do we ever have to say, “Tyler was the worst behaved child I had ever seen and his mother had no idea how to deal with him”? No. That sentence can be cut. We have illustrated it, and by doing this we have allowed readers to draw that conclusion on their own. In this way, readers participate in the story, which is so much more powerful than the writer telling them about this character.

Too much telling can manifest in many ways:

  • too much backstory/flashback
  • too much interior monologue
  • too much hooptedoodle (Elmore Leonard’s term for writing that sounds like writing)
  • the desire to send a message

How do you know if you’re showing, and not telling? Your scene should be able to be set on stage. What this means is:

A character sitting around thinking is not a scene
  • A character sitting alone on his bed, thinking about his life, is not a scene. This is not what is meant by showing.
  • A character telling you her life story (think of the worst seatmate you can imagine on a long bus ride) is not a scene.

Now, if your seatmate on that long bus ride happens to be a skilled raconteur—in other words, if your narrator has a particularly engaging voice—you might be able to get away with more telling than usual. But sooner or later, your readers will be looking for the story to start. They might not express it in those terms—those are editorial terms. That’s me scribbling in the margin of your manuscript, hey, where’s the scene? This is all telling. Your readers will experience it as a realization that they’ve read the same paragraph four times, and guess what? Netflix is looking pretty good right about now.

However, there is such thing as too much showing. You don’t need to show every little thing. Common sense should dictate what needs to be dramatized and what can be left to the imagination. Detail is a way of signalling to your reader what’s going to be important in the story. We only need the details of your character’s breakfast if, for example, they end up in a car accident that morning and need emergency surgery and the anesthesiologist says, Did you have breakfast? And the character, woozy from the accident, says no—while you, the reader, remember very clearly that English muffin with a slice of smoked ham. In that case, breakfast is important. Otherwise—it’s just breakfast.

Does this mean you should never tell? Of course not. Sometimes you have information that simply must be conveyed by telling. You need to get your characters from Point A to Point B. Your characters do think, after all. You’re going to want to describe their psychological state. You might need to explain a bit of history or world-building here and there. And sometimes you just need to tell us that the moon was shining and get on with it.

How do you do it?

The keys to effective telling are:

  • Integrate it into the scene as much as possible. Make it relevant to something that is happening in the moment. Then it helps to move the plot forward.
  • Add tension: Make the information something that causes problems for the characters. Show their reaction. This engages the reader. If the information matters to the characters, it will matter to the reader.
  • Write it in such a way that it conveys something about a character’s personality. Then it adds to character development.
  • Keep it brief—a sentence or two maximum.
  • Break it up. Don’t stick all your telling in one spot. Sprinkle information throughout a scene. Only tell readers the minimum of what they need to know at any given moment.

I haven’t come across any hard and fast breakdown of how much of a novel should be shown and how much told. But 90/10 is the rule I try to follow in my own work. Show, don’t tell, and your readers will skip Netflix and stay up late reading your novel instead.

This article was original posted on Gail Anderson-Dargatz's blog.

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