All Things Writing

Show Versus Tell and What That Really Means

April 03, 2021 Bryan the Writer Season 2 Episode 10
All Things Writing
Show Versus Tell and What That Really Means
Show Notes Transcript

Show versus tell... show versus tell... show versus tell...

If we are true to ourselves, no other bit of writing advice has been given out more times than any other. Editors are perpetually yelling at us to show and not tell.

For old hands at the wheel, we know it when we see it and usually say something. Editors have magic red pens that can write "Show... not tell" on your manuscripts automatically by saying some sort of incantation.

For the rest of us in the world, we have wonderful insights from other authors and some great articles we can consult from time to time to help us on our writing journey. Won't you join me?

By the way, the articles mentioned in this podcast are:

Please, if you enjoyed this episode, hit like and consider a financial donation to help keep things rolling.

Have a blessed day,
Bryan the Writer

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Welcome to the show. Thank you for joining me again on this next episode of all things writing. Speaking of thanking you, I want to thank again last week’s guest, Mr. Ronald Malfi for joining me. I think we can all agree that was an amazing show. If you did not catch it, I highly suggest you check it out on whatever medium you use to get your podcasts. It was an amazing show.

As I record this, it is kind of strange week here weather wise here in northern Virginia. It is trying to be spring, but not quite getting there. We have a roller coaster ride of barometric pressure out there and those of us who suffer from chronic pain are getting the worst of it.

You know, recently there was an American medical association article that showed no definitive link between pain in those of us with fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis and I have to tell those people who conducted the study that they need to have their heads examined. Anyway.

What a difference one week can make. Atlanta was just edged out of the top spot by Guiseley, England. For those of you not up on your U.K. geography, Guiseley is just outside of Leeds. Pretty far north, getting closer to my ancestral homeland of Scotland. Atlanta is not that far behind, so Georgia still has a chance to get caught up. But they share that second spot with West Lake Stephens, Washington. And bringing up third place are the good people of Dallas, Texas.

You know, it is kind of tough coming off a show like we had last week. A great interview sort of makes my day in a lot of ways, so rolling off of that and onto a more functional topic can be hard. But, I think I found something that will whet your writing whistle, if you will. This week, I want to talk about show versus telling writing. Why you want more show versus tell and I am going to make the argument that sometimes, very sparingly, telling is okay. But ninety-nine percent of the time you need to make sure you are showing.

Well, then, what do we mean when we say show versus telling?

I am going to give you a few explanations for what that look like, but I think it is helpful. When we speak, we tend to do the exact opposite of showing versus telling. If I were to see a beautiful blue Jay outside my house I might say to my wife, “Look honey, that thing is beautiful.”

What I did there was tell rather than show. I instructed my wife to look at that thing, versus a beautiful blue Jay.

We see this a lot of times in new writers this is not necessarily their fault because we tend to write the way we talk a lot of times. And therein lies the problem.

In reality, if we wrote the way we talked, that would end up being a tragic mess. Nobody would be able understand anything we were saying in our books at least.

Consider, for example, the following statement. “I find the study of this satisfying, it really feeds my imagination.” If I were talking to friends inside of the public library, while we were attending a lesson of some sort or another, this line would make perfect sense. However, in real life and to a certain extent, in movies to, we have the cues which are visual. These cues fill the story in for us.

Incidentally, that’s why writing a script is different than writing a novel. When you write a script you don’t necessarily have to fill in the cues around the main characters. This is mostly because that’s the director’s job. And, by the way, they get pretty busy when you do that for them. So don’t do it. But I digress.

So in the sentence, “I find the study of this satisfying, it really feeds my imagination.” We see a sentence that only works as long as we have visual cues around us. Imagine the sentence in a book and then I want you to mentally jump to a different version of the book where the sentence reads as follows. I find the study of paleontology satisfying, the idea of finding an unknown dinosaur really feeds my imagination.”

What I did there was replace the words this, and it, with more descriptive words. I took the time to make the dialogue richer by having the character actually describe the thing they want to study and tell the reader why it is that the studying of paleontology feeds their imagination.

When we speak, we tend to put a lot of emphasis on getting to the point quickly and sometimes that leaves out critical details. So in our daily lives we tend to tell more than show in how we construct our sentences.

In writing however, you can’t get away with that. One of my great nemesis is the word feel.

I feel it. I feel better. She felt the summer breeze. He felt the honed steel blade of the knife. The word feel, and all of its nasty cousins, really do show up in my writing quite a bit. So much so that when I’m done with the manuscript I purposely look for the words so that I can get rid of them.

But how do I do that?

Take the last example I gave. “He felt the honed steel blade of the knife.” As far as sentences go it’s not necessarily a bad one. Although the word he is a little confusing, because we have no idea what they see is that we are referring to, we get a pretty good impression of what the actor and the sentence is doing.

Let’s say for argument sake the person we are talking about is Thomas. That part was easy, we picked the name. Now we don’t have this ambiguous male figure in the sentence This is where it can get a little confusing.

Particular for new authors, and even old hands at the pen, we’ve painted ourselves into a bit of a corner where this word is concerned. It’s a perfectly good word, it works. But it’s lazy writing.

Although the sentence tells us what we need to know, it’s not much fun to read. It’s a little boring. Let’s spice this up a little.

What do you actually feel when you touch the blade of a knife? I would argue that you feel cold metal, sharp edge, if it’s that kind of knife, you may see the intricate patterns you get in the middle if it’s a Damascus steel blade. By the way, I have a Damascus steel knife and it’s beautiful.

So we could change the sentence to read as follows, “Thomas gingerly touched the cool metal of the honed Damascus steel blade as if his touch alone would cause the weapon to shatter into a million pieces, taking his redemption along with it.”

No, that sentence isn’t perfection, and probably needs a little rewriting. I’m also pretty sure that an editor would end up cutting that down a little bit, but you have to admit my second example of the Thomas paragraph is far more interesting to read than the first.

Okay, now that we know what show versus tell writing is, let’s take a look at examples of words that should key is in that we are guilty of lazy writing writing. Will do that right after we come back from this message.


And we’ve returned, thank you very much for joining me for the second half of all things today were talking about show versus tell writing. Now the first half of the show I alluded that this is lazy writing. I wanted to talk about that idea for a second and make one thing clear. We are all guilty of it. No writer has ever written a perfect book where you can’t find at least one instance of telling rather than showing. It’s not necessarily the mark of a bad writer if they do it.

There are times when it’s perfectly acceptable to tell versus show. 

To be fair, the list I’m about to provide was stolen from Amanda Patterson at the writers write website. I will include the link to this article in the show notes. Amanda says that there are five instances where it’s perfectly acceptable to tell versus show.

The first instance is when you have to connect scenes, introduce characters, and/or gloss over unnecessary conversations. 

Look, there are times when you need to weave two scenes together or just keep things moving along. Telling allows you to put some information in there to keep the story moving along but doesn’t bog the reader down with unnecessary details. It’s great for brief transitions. If your characters are traveling to another city or moved to a different room. There is absently no reason why you have to describe the process of getting in the car driving across the city, or the process of walking from one room to another. You’re just gonna bore your reader.

The second instance where telling is okay is when you are reporting events or you’re going to gloss over and unimportant character.

Let’s say that you have a secondary character who is helping your protagonist around the house maybe they take over the cooking duties. You don’t necessarily need to get into great detail on why it is that they went over and did the cooking. It doesn’t matter.

Amanda provided a great example of if a story is set in a school environment, briefly tell us how the characters spent their Christmas holidays at home. Don’t introduce us to a series of characters who have nothing to do with the main story.

She’s right, we don’t need to know about aunt Emily at the Christmas party at the house. It’s unnecessary.

The third example, and I love this one, is to simply show time passing.

Given that a novel can span anywhere from one day to an entire lifetime, there’s no reason to account for every single moment. You can tell your reader that six seasons had passed, 10 years had passed, the little boy grew into a man, the little girl grew into a beautiful woman, the spires of the church steeple turned from a gleaming copper to a dingy green. In all those examples I’m showing a passage of time but not necessarily bogging the reader down with details that are unnecessary and are just going to bore them. 

Telling is a great way to add to your back story, without adding a ton more that just doesn’t need to be there. This is particularly useful when you’re adding in the past. However, this can be overdone. If you’re going to add back story in this way, remember to do it gradually. You may think that your character has the greatest back story ever, but if you spend three chapters at the very beginning describing it, you’re going to lose and confuse your reader. Back story is great, but added in sparingly, and spread it out. Keep the interludes brief, and get back to the storyline as quickly as you can.

Speaking of getting back to our story, let’s continue with words that should signal that you’re telling versus writing. Now I did talk about my own personal bugaboo, the word feel and all of its ugly cousins.

Other examples include the see, it, know, and what I refer to as the Ould Sisters, could, would, and should.

See, and its nasty brothers and sisters seeing and saw, play a particularly nasty role in the saga of show versus tell. A really good example of this are sentences like. “He saw a dragon rising in the East.” Again, it is a good sentence by itself. But how much better is it if we said. “His gaze followed the line of smoke to the east and out from the distant inky black smog rose a the winged black demon with razor sharp claws and glowing indigo eyes.” Again, both sentences are lovely sentences, but the second one is far better.

Next we turn to it. Use that the word sparingly. If you come across the word, it, the first thing you should consider is what you are trying to describe. Think about that item and then describe it. As an example, “You know I would never do it.” Can become, “You know I would never betray your trust.”

Ah, now we turn to the Ould sisters, could, would, and should. Unless in dialogue, you flat out don’t need them at all. I, Bryan the Writer do hereby give you permission to use them in dialogue because they are used as a normal part of speech.

But why would you write. “Bryan could go to the grocery store, but he decided not to because he did not want to waste time.” No, “Bryan did not have the time to go to the grocery store.” More succinct. From 20 words, to 12. Far better. And I am sure you could do more with that sentence if you want to. I used could in that example, but the same holds true for the other sisters as well.

I could literally go over a ton of examples until we are all blue in the face. But let me leave you with a few resources. 

Autocrit, who in no way sponsors the show, But they can if they want to, no pressure, has a great article posted on their site about showing versus telling. Check out the link in the show notes. Or just search Autocrit and Showing versus telling.

I would also suggest you check out Amanda Patterson’s article on when it is perfectly okay to tell versus show. You can check out her website and read the article by going to the “Writers Write” website. Just check out or follow the link in the show notes.

Look friends, I have only scratched the surface, and barely at that. There are ton more helpful guides out there that you can fill a three ring binder with over and over again. Don’t take my word for it. 

I would love to post them all here, but unfortunately we have come to the end of another episode of All things Writing, next week I am off planning new adventures, but after that I will be back with author and fellow podcaster, author Kenneth McKay. He has a pretty great show called “Author Your Dream” and has written a few books we are going to be chatting about. 

Remember, if you like the show, tell your friends, smash that like button, and of course you can consider financial support. The coffers are running a bit bare, and I do need a new 4 channel mixer board among other things. You can contribute by hitting the donate button, or Paypaling me directly at [email protected]

Until next time, this is Bryan the Writer, signing off.