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...

Showing:

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

Telling:

"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?

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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!

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