The Difference Between Showing and Telling?

by Emerald
(Waterloo, Ontario)

Hi there!

I'm currently working on a novel, and one of my main goals is to allow the reader to really feel like they're in the moment, as if they they're watching a movie instead of reading a few words. I've researched several ways on how to do this, and many say to "show not tell".

I understand that this means to use description to allow the readers to visualize the scene you are trying to paint, but I'm finding it a bit hard to see whether or not I'm really "showing".

However, a few days ago, I've read that sometimes, you just need to tell instead of show.

My main question is, what's the difference between showing and telling? As well, when should I use showing and when should I use telling?

Any tips would be greatly appreciated.

Many thanks,
A fellow writer.

Answer: "Showing" or "scene" involves describing the sensory data that allow the reader to experience the illusion of actually being "on site," perceiving the story unfolding. The reader can draw his/her own conclusions about what is happening from this sensory data.

"Telling" or "narrative summary" involves explaining or describing the story to the reader. It feels like having someone tell you about something that happened rather than actually being there yourself. It involves the narrator stating conclusions rather than letting the reader draw his own conclusions.

Here's a famous example given by the playwright, Anton Chekhov...


"A broken bottle neck glittered on the dam and the mill wheel cast a black shadow."


"It was a moonlit night."

Notice how the "telling" example gives you a conclusion (presumably based on what the narrator perceived), whereas the "showing" example provides sensory perceptions that allow the reader to conclude for themselves that it was a moonlit night.

These sensory impressions can include not just visual data but also sounds (including dialogue), smells, tastes, and all manner of physical sensations and perceptions, both external and internal.

While most events in a story will be written with some combination of showing and telling, the more showing you do the more emotional impact the event will have.

For example, rather than say "Jane felt scared," it can be more effective to describe the pounding of her heart, the cold sweat breaking out on her forehead, how she struggled to suppress a scream, etc.

Rule of thumb: you want to "show" the major events in the story as much as possible, so your reader can feel like they're actually there and experience these events emotionally.

On the other hand, telling or summary has its uses too. Summary is often used to transition between two key events, especially when what happens in between is not very important. For example, if your characters spend 48 very uneventful hours hiking to their destination, you might summarize this in a few sentences rather than describing the journey in ten pages of painstaking detail. In other words, summarize the boring parts. Show the exciting or emotional turning points.

Telling is also used for exposition (providing background information needed to understand what is happening).

For example, let's say you have an action scene in which your character comes face to face with someone she hates. You could insert a lengthy flashback showing the history between two characters so that the reader understands the animosity. On the other hand, that might interrupt the flow of the action and spoil the emotional impact of the present scene. So a line or two summarizing the history between the characters might be a better solution.

Comments for The Difference Between Showing and Telling?

Click here to add your own comments

Oct 14, 2015
You're the best!
by: Anonymous

Thank you so, so much for putting so much time and effort into your responses!
Your site is helping me a lot with my writing and helps me think in perspectives I haven't thought of before!
Once again, thanks!

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Questions About Novel Writing.

 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook

NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles

"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards

"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero