When to Tell/When to Show

When is it better to tell what’s happening, and when is it better to show? I’ve blogged about show and tell before, but it’s a topic that keeps popping up, and I’d like to approach it from a different perspective than I did before.

Writers are always being told to show, don’t tell, but there are times (parts of scenes) where telling is the best method. I’ve been working on a scene today where I need to use both. I have my protagonist, PJ Benson, heading for the grocery store when a man she’s worked with in my two earlier “Crow” books shows up and asks if she wants to join him for a beer and hamburger at the local bar. In this scene, I do need to show how she feels seeing him again (which is a little guilty), but I don’t need to show how it feels to ride behind him on his Harley Davidson: this isn’t a romance, this isn’t a man she’s romantically involved with, and how she feels about riding on a Harley isn’t important to the story. All I need to do is tell the reader she rode the short distance to the bar on a Harley behind a tattooed stranger.

Once I have the two in the bar, I need to show the reader a little about the bar (what PJ sees, smells, hears), but it’s the conversation she and her friend have while there that’s important, so I can tell what they order and how it’s delivered, and then switch to showing how PJ acts and reacts as she conveys the information needed for the story. Once PJ has that information, I can again slip into the telling mode and say they talked until he finished his last French fry, and then he paid the bill and took her back to the grocery store. I can even skip her grocery shopping, since it’s not overly important to the story, and I could simply tell the reader she picked up the few items she needed and was back at her house by two o’clock.

Actually, I think PJ’s car is going to stop running a mile from her house, so that is where and when I’ll again switch to showing. There will be her surprise when the engine sputters and her car glides to a stop, her frustration, irritation, and so on. It’s here I need to stop telling the reader how PJ feels and start showing how she’s reacting, what she’s thinking, and what she’s saying. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I have a feeling one of the car’s tires is going to get kicked, which will probably end up hurting PJ more than the car. And her cell phone won’t work (who knows what she’ll do with it). And the unwanted tears will probably come, since they seem to be coming even when she doesn’t want to cry. And she’s going to think about walking home carrying those groceries, especially the gallon of milk she bought, and she’ll just want to curl up and take a nap.

Sometimes I forget and tell too much, but that’s the great advantage of second, third and fourth drafts. I can go back in and change telling to showing. It’s also the advantage of critique partners. When they want to know how she feels, I know I need to stop telling and start showing.

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Last week I blogged about writers’ block. While at a writers’ meeting yesterday, one writer told me about the Poets & Writers Magazine’s website where every Wednesday, under “Tools for Writers/Writing Prompts/The Time is Now” they publish a writing prompt for fiction writers. If you’re interested, take a look at the site. http://www.pw.org/writing-prompts-exercises

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8 Responses to When to Tell/When to Show

  1. Connie says:

    excellent example Maris, I hope you don’t mind that I copied and paste to add to my writing materials.


  2. Thanks Maris. This is a great topic and a timely post for me. I always took the ‘tell, don’t show’ advice to heart – – but you can definitely overdo it. Such as when you need to show time passing (elapsing days or even weeks). There is no other choice than to tell instead of show. I am reading a terrific book by a top-selling author right now, and she tells a lot and it works because her style is so fluid and fun to read. Thanks for posting.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You’re right, Margaret. Nowadays readers want to feel like they’re “there” with the pov character–seeing and feeling what that character sees and feels–but there are times that can be over done. It’s deciding when to tell and when to show that’s the tricky part, especially for new writers who simply want to “tell” the story.

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    Thank you for sharing. It is always a challenge on what to show and what to tell.

  4. Dynamite blog. I belong to a critique group-very snobby about show and tell jumping all over the reader for using both in a scene. I say use common sense and get over yourself. Thanks for terrific advice.

    • Maris Soule says:

      You are exactly right, Charmaine. I hate it when I hear writers advising other writers using the words “Never…” Use common sense and do what works for the story. Thanks for the comment.