Tell v. Show

Tell v. Show1

I hope you all forgave my absence. Just a short run down of what has been happening in my life: Two weeks ago I received a text message from my mom that she’d had to call an ambulance for my dad. This is, sadly, something I am used to. He’s had health problems for my entire life. However, he’d had a heart attack during a grand mal seizure. Long story short: I took time off work to be with him. He signed a DNR with the hospital (can’t blame him for being tired of fighting. Like I said, he’s been going through heart attacks, strokes, seizures, etc. for over thirty years.) We’re actively trying to get him in Hospice care, which isn’t as straightforward as it would be if he had, say, terminal cancer, though he’s still in great need for the assistance.

All of that said…hi. I’m back.

I suppose I should sum up my February goals: I failed.  Not at all of it, but it wasn’t a great month. My March goals? I’m not making any. Why? I have the nagging suspicion Dad’s health isn’t finished with its nosedive. I’m genuinely shocked he’s still here, to be perfectly honest. Delighted. But shocked. I hope to start back with the goals in April. I’m giving  myself more time to adjust to whatever version of normal this is supposed to be.

So anyway, back to the topic at hand.

Tell vs. Show?

If you’ve spent anytime in Twitter’s writing community, and I’m sure the same holds true for Instagram and Facebook, you’ve heard of a little thing called show versus tell.

A lot of new writers latch onto this surface-level advice with every ounce of energy they have.

Wait. What’s surface-level advice, you ask?

They hear show versus tell or show don’t tell, and instantly think telling readers something is a bad thing and they must show, show, show everything. There’s more than what’s on the surface, and I would argue we shouldn’t even say “show, don’t tell.” I’m guilty of saying it, I know. But it isn’t exactly accurate, albeit catchier than “Mostly show, but maybe tell sometimes.”

Anyway, telling isn’t a career death sentence. Telling is sometimes useful. Telling is sometimes a better option than showing.

I heard you gasp just then.

It’s true, though. Most advice posts try to teach people how to show instead of tell, which is great on one hand because a lot of new writers (including myself in this) do a lot more telling than showing. And, truthfully, your story should be more showing than telling. But it shouldn’t be all showing.

Because not every book is supposed to be 100,000 words. Sometimes your reader needs a quick dose of information and then they need to move along.

Since, from my research, the part about when it’s okay to tell versus show is usually buried way down deep in blog posts and at the end of vlogs, let’s start there and work our way through to the more popular advice in another blog post.

A Time to Tell

Let me try to put this in the simplest terms for someone second guessing me right now. I know, you’ve been told show, don’t tell so many times you’re certain I’m wrong. Let me ask you a question, then.

Everything in your story is supposed to be relevant to the plot, tension, character arcs, etc., yes?

Yes. Good.

Except it isn’t. And that’s when brevity is your friend. That’s when you want to tell.

Glossing Over The Mundane

Sometimes in order for the important things to make sense, we have to have our characters go through something mundane. You can either make the mundane thing interesting or you can tell your readers the mundane thing happened. A trip to the grocery store, the bank, maybe they need a nap, or they have to change clothes. This could be anything.

Let’s say your character has never left the United States but is suddenly in a nail-biting situation and they need to be somewhere where they’ll be required to get certain vaccinations. (I don’t know where that is, it’s your story.) Omitting that stuff may work, sure, but you’re like me and you’re afraid someone will read your book and say, “Hey! I’ve been there and I had to get such-and-such shot and you’d definitely have to have a passport! What gives?”

Instead of adding in an extra chapter where all that happens is your main character’s trip to the doctor and getting shots, then waiting in line for their passport…just tell us it happened.

Suzy had never been crazy about needles, but after the vaccines and the all-too-long wait for her passport, she was ready to board the plane. 

Then, bingo bango, you’re back to the action and meat of your story.

When else might you want to tell instead of show?

When You Know, You Know?

So, you’ve got two surgeons. The reader assumes they’re skilled and knowledgeable since they are surgeons. But your reader needs to know something both of your surgeons know. One of the most common options is the “you know” talk. Hear me out:

Dr. Strafer checked his watch. “As you know, Dr. Flanders, operating on this section of the brain is very dangerous. If we make even one tiny mistake, the patient could die.”

While this may seem harmless, it’s actually sort of telling on top of telling slathered atop unnatural dialogue. This sounds like some soap opera dialogue from an episode of Friends when Joey plays Dr. Drake Ramoré—stilted, forced, and a bit campy. Instead, just give the piece of information straightforwardly and let the surgeons sound like surgeons.

The surgery was rife with dangers. 

It’s succinct. You may not find this sort of thing necessary—there are plenty of ways to show this through actions: your normally steady-handed surgeon is sweating bullets, a nurse noticing one of the surgeons silently praying…it’s pretty limitless. But, keep reading and you’ll find why this may be advantageous anyway.

Passing The Time

Your character is waiting on something or someone. Now, waiting can be an amazing jumping off point for a scene. Maybe they’re waiting at a train station and they meet some amazing people or they wind up thwarting a purse snatcher. I don’t know, it’s your story.

But what if it’s longer?

Are you going to describe everything that happened during those days, weeks, months, or years?

God I hope not. Not if it isn’t relevant. No, you’re going to skip over all the unimportant stuff with a scene transition. These aren’t meant to be super memorable.

Five days later, ______________.

That works just fine and we didn’t have to experience those five unimportant days.

It doesn’t have to be a long stretch of time, though. Remember that mundane thing from up there? Maybe your MC is a student and you need to have him at school for the super important thing to happen, but you don’t necessarily need to have us sit through his history exam.

After class, _______________.

Basically: Tell us time has passed and move on.

Been There, Done That

You’ve set up these three locations beautifully: Your MC’s bedroom, their office, and their backyard. Are you going to intricately describe them each and every time we enter?

No. That would be insanely redundant and boring.

For instance, from my current WIP:


We are in and out of this room a few times and you can bet I do not describe it like this each time. In fact, I never describe it like this again. If we come in here, I simply state we’re in her room and I’m pretty certain my readers will understand she’s in some fancy place. They may not remember the brocade canopy or the gold threading. But I’m not going to hammer those points to death.

Describe your locations and characters well enough that you don’t need to continuously do a bunch of showing each time they make an appearance. You can tell me.

Balance, Baby

Remember our scenario with the surgeons earlier? I hope so; it was only a minute ago. Well, here’s another reason that instance of telling instead of showing may have worked well for that story even without the stilted, unnatural dialogue.

If all you do in your work is show everything, you run the risk of wordiness. You’ve heard the other advice that says novice writers say in a hundred words what a skilled writer can say in one. Maybe one word is a bit of a stretch, but I think this truly does boil down to knowing when it is okay to tell.

Breaking up long stretches of showing with a good tell can help with your pacing and if you’re lucky, you’ll master how to do this for some amazing dramatic impact. I’m still working on that.

Fight Scenes

I put this after balance because I think fight scenes that are all show or all tell are always boring. You need a bit of both.

So, let’s see if I can explain.

If you tell too much you’re going to have a blow-by-blow approach with the fight scene which is the quickest way to make a fight scene utterly boring.

He swung with his right hand and connected with his opponent’s left jaw. Then he did a roundhouse kick and smashed his opponent’s kidneys.

Boring. Even if you’re writing about Chuck Norris.

Yeah. I said it. Chuck Norris.

But, at the same time, showing absolutely everything in a fight scene may take away from the scene’s urgency—something a fight scene should definitely have. Sandwiching in some telling and showing is a good compromise.

Daniel started swinging. Everything he had held onto, the rage, the  disappointment, the fear: all of it was coming out in his fists as he pelted Roman’s face, blow after blow. Blood pooled in Daniel’s mouth. He spit out a tooth, then at Roman’s feet. Both men paused, choking on the December air. Refusing to succumb to tears, Daniel wheezed while watching the snow clouds above him. There was no friendship left to save. Daniel hated him.

So, admittedly, that isn’t the most thoughtful fight scene ever, but I hope you get my point. Imagine if Daniel’s fists were described in detail with two or three sentences. Imagine further if we recapped what we can assume was a build up to this fight in order to show that Daniel now hates Roman.

We started out telling the reader that Daniel started swinging. What does it matter whether he started with his right hand? We gave a bit of show in the middle, and hopefully we’ve got some material before this fight scene that makes Daniel’s revelation of hating Roman have some emotional punch of its own.

This tell/show/tell sandwich method may not always work for every fight scene, but it’s not a bad one to try.

Identifying Tell v. Show

Regardless if you want to tell or not, it’s important to know when you’re doing it. Here are some quick examples, italicized for telling, bold for showing:

He kissed her cheek.
His quivering lips pressed against her cheek.

She was tired.
Her eyelids drooped and her body ached; her bed appealed to her more than any lover ever had. All she wanted to do was curl up and stay there for a week.

Ms. Turner pulled a bottle of wine from her desk drawer.
After dismissing her students to an early recess, Ms. Turner sat her desk a moment, questioning every decision that had brought her here. To this point in her life. She didn’t even bother to lock the door this time, nor did she see a point in turning down the lights. She struggled with the stubborn drawer a moment, cursing the lack of adequate everything. Producing a cheap bottle of wine—because on her salary, what else could she afford—Ms. Turner emptied her coffee cup into the ficus by the closet, then filled it with her pinot noir and sipped it while watching her students through the cracked window.

But the strongest indication is when you use words related to the five senses (though it isn’t always the case, either. I know. Writing is hard.)

She looked sad.
The milk tasted sour.
He listened to cows mooing in the distance.
The market smelled wonderful.
The sweater felt soft.

***Challenge: In the comments below, share how you might show one of those sensory tells and obliterated the sensory word.***

Final Thoughts

Show when you want the reader to experience emotion or be immersed in a scene (like the above teacher example) and tell when all that is important is the conveyance of information.

That’s all I’ve got for you today, friends. ♥

Tell me what you think about telling vs. showing in the comments below. See what I did there? *eyebrow waggle*

I’m so clever.

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