Deciding when to show and when to tell
We know “show don’t tell” is a vital concept because it is constantly drilled into writers, but the truth is, the application is subtle, and therefore often difficult. How the heck do you decide which technique is most appropriate in each instance?
Well, I’m going to provide you with a simple process to help you choose the best way to go, so you can be confident that you are using showing and telling in a way that is going to best suit your story and engage readers at the right time. This is the key to achieving that special blend of storytelling and emotive demonstration that enables us to convey our landscapes, characters and plots in an engaging way.
Making a conscious choice
In order to integrate showing and telling satisfactorily you need to make conscious decisions about relevance, quantity and the delivery method you’re going to use, but when it comes to actually writing the words, the biggest choice is whether it’s more appropriate to use showing or telling.
Let’s look at how to make that decision and then translate it into emotionally compelling prose that grips readers.
But first, there is one concept that is critical to understanding the whole concept of showing and telling.
The concept of meshing
I believe the reason so many writers struggle with showing and telling is because the two devices aren’t incompatible and don’t exist independently. They rely on one another to move the story forwards at the right pace and to draw readers in.
If you accept that both showing and telling are intertwined throughout a story and you will use them simultaneously, then all you have to do is to figure out which one to accentuate at any given moment. That’s much easier, right?
Both showing and telling are valuable, and there are degrees of each. It's not an all in or all out kind of thing. One creates drama and movement and the other conveys information succinctly and poetically. Sandy Vaile
Should you use more showing or telling?
To decide if dramatising a situation using showing or sticking to straightforward storytelling is the best option, you need to scrutinise the emotional value of the information or event.
I’ve developed a simple flowchart to help you decide which way to go when you’re not sure.
Here are some more tips on how to know if the information or event you are writing is going to create strong emotion/drama.
Signs to look for
When looking for signs that information or an event is critical and would benefit from more showing, look for change. Ask yourself if the main character will discover, react to or make a decision about something that is going to affect their story journey or their current goal.
Here are some key moments to look for:
Apply the perfect blend of showing and telling
Once you’ve decided if you’re going to use more showing or more telling (remember it’s not one or the other because they are both happening in any scene), then there are a variety of devices to make the delivery fresh and emotive. (See below for details of Sandy’s workshop, which will go into each technique in depth.)
Let’s take a look at a single event and how to apply this decision process.
SCENARIO - A woman spends two hours making sure she looks her best for a job interview, because she needs the job to make the next rental payment.
QUESTION 1 – Is this event vital to drive the story forwards?
We know that the job interview is important to this woman, but do we need to see her preparing for it? It depends if the reader already understands the importance of the interview, in which case you can probably just get her to the interview as quickly as possible, because that's where all the drama is likely to occur. A bridging sentence is a good way to do this, e.g.: After two hours agonising over which suit and accessories to wear, Dianne sat in the waiting room, taking deep breaths to keep her centred.
DECISION 1 - For the purposes of this example, let’s say the reader as no idea what’s on the line if Dianne doesn’t get hired for this job, in which case we should keep the scene.
QUESTION 2 – Does the event create strong emotional drama?
Considering how much Dianne has to lose at this point in the story (her home) and how nervous she would be preparing for the interview, it will definitely cause a strong emotional reaction.
DECISION 2 – The reader needs to know how important the interview is to Dianne and why, so this is a chance to use more showing.
Maybe not all two hours of it because this scene isn’t as important as the next, but certainly to help the reader feel the anxiety and understand the reasons behind it, like not being able to make her next rental payment and being tossed out on the street.
Where to next?
As you can see, both showing and telling are valuable techniques that exist in harmony, and now you have an easy-to-use strategy to help you decide which to lean on more in each instance. Getting this right throughout your story can be the difference between readers sticking with it until the end and abandoning it at the first sign of an information dump.
If you’d like to delve more deeply into how to combine showing action with effective telling, so you can avoid information dumps, maximise sensory details and write stories that readers can’t put down, then grab a place in Sandy’s wildly popular Master Emotive Storytelling and Showing workshop.
By Sandy Vaile
Hi everyone, I’m here to demystify the old “show don’t tell” adage.
We’ve all heard it, but it’s often confusing and therefore difficult to apply to our own work. Telling has long been associated with bad writing, and showing with good writing. In my opinion, all of the techniques in your writing craft toolbox are dependent on one another, and it’s not possible to just learn them all and instantly be a good writer. Most of us learn one new skill at a time, and once mastered, it comes naturally to us. Showing and telling are just extra skills for your toolbox, and when broken down into bite-sized pieces, will become integral to your writing style.
Both showing and telling are valuable, and there are degrees of each. It’s not an all-in or all-out kind of thing. One creates drama and movement, and the other conveys information succinctly and poetically.
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years, and believe the focus is usually on showing, because telling comes naturally (we are story-tellers after all), but showing is layered with components, and so takes time to master.
So, if you agree that you are telling a story, then all you have to do is learn how to spot opportunities to tell better, tell with more emotion, or show the action. That doesn’t sound too scary, right? Personally, I think it’s time to update the old adage to something like: Show and Tell Effectively.
What’s the point?
The purpose of showing and telling effectively, is to totally emerge the reader in the story. It’s about creating the ideal pace, diffusion of information, and making the most of dramatization, in order to let the reader feel the emotional ups and downs of the character.
The appeal of SHOWING is that it lets the reader draw their own conclusions from the story, and connect more deeply with the characters. The reader gets to experience events through the characters’ actions, emotions, senses, thoughts and words. Showing can add layers to characters and scenes, adding a vibrancy that makes the reader feel like they’re actually there. It has a particularly powerful effect when there is an emotional upheaval for your point of view character.
It can be exhausting to be shown the minutiae of life for three-hundred pages, and it takes more words to get the same point across. In some cases, telling is more efficient. Being told information is never as exciting as discovering it for yourself.
Telling has a tendency to distance the reader, rather than making them feel a part of the story, because there’s a tendency to see the world through the narrator’s eyes rather than the character’s. Instead, let them experience the characters’ struggles and success, and discover information in an organic way.
Telling is a valuable tool to get necessary information across, to move quickly through time, or to move your characters from one location to another without showing the whole journey. The reader has no interest in seeing everything your character does, from brushing her teeth to eating every spoonful of breakfast. Use telling to move the story forwards in a succinct way and inform the reader of information they need to know.
When to show and tell
Remember, you don’t have to choose between showing or telling; they exist in harmony.
Make the most of showing:
Effective showing and telling techniques
One of the easiest ways to make sure you are writing actively, is to just show what’s happening. Pre-empting the action is a clue that you aren’t doing this, e.g. she started to ...
Labelling emotions can be a sign that you’re missing an opportunity to engage the reader with how the character is feeling, e.g. instead of saying “she was mad”, show her punching the wall or glaring at the offender.
Avoid information dumps, which occur when the story material is poorly integrated with the action. It’s one of the main reasons telling gets a bad rap, because it slows the forward movement of the story. Instead, make sure the information is necessary, and not just to the story as a whole, but right at that moment. Then integrate it in small amounts, at appropriate times.
Description isn’t about simply listing adjectives, but about adding meaningful and specific details that layer your scene/character development. Also, make sure you use words that support the tone of the story.
Employ all of the senses to create atmosphere in a scene—not necessarily all at once though.
Create fresh metaphors and similes to compare what’s going on in the story with concepts readers are familiar with. This is a great way to build on the tone of a scene.
Dialogue is an active way for your characters to interact with one another, and keeps things interesting. The best part about it, is that it reveals so much more about the characters than what they are saying, e.g. their attitudes and beliefs, upbringing, culture and personality.
Once you master the art of showing and telling effectively, you’ll be amazed at how it lifts your storytelling, and becomes part of your writing style. You’ll see opportunities to infuse it everywhere!
I hope you feel more relaxed about showing and telling now. Learn how to realise a balance between description and brevity that will captivate readers and won’t let them go in my Show Don’t Tell Is Like A Layer Cake course.
The ultimate course to help you master emotive storytelling!
Empowering modern fiction authors to confidently write novels worthy of publication