How to Use Showing vs. Telling Effectively

by Rachelle M. N. Shaw

There are tons of writing blogs and articles out there that offer advice on showing vs. telling. But why is that?

Why is showing so important that it automatically trumps telling? Is it ever okay to use telling? The secret is actually in the combination of the two. When you know how you can use showing in conjunction with telling, you can strengthen your writing and sharpen the structure of your pieces.

What Is Showing?

Showing can be described as an action that is happening at the moment. Even if you are writing in past tense, that definition still applies. Think in terms of watching a movie. Chances are, given the choice, you’d probably opt to watch a movie rather than have a friend recount its events to you. Reading a book is much the same way. Most readers pick up a book wanting to get lost in its story and feel things right alongside the characters. You can achieve that most effectively through the art of showing or describing the events as they unfold. This way, the readers discover things as the characters do.

Why Is Showing Often More Powerful?

The main reason is that we’re already experts at body language at birth. Don’t believe me? The art of showing is ingrained into our minds, even during development in the womb, and it blossoms from there. We’re born knowing the basics of how to show our emotions through body language and how to read others’ body language. It’s not just a means of communication—it’s key to our survival. When a baby cries, its mother is programmed to respond to it by watching for certain cues, like feeding a baby who roots or rocking a baby to sleep when they yawn and rub their eyes. Knowing both how to convey our emotions and how to decipher them is what makes us so good at connecting with people on a deeper, more emotional level. Writers can tap into that ability to create characters that are vivid and realistic, crafting stories that stick with the reader long after they’ve read it.

When Showing Works

Showing typically is best suited for the main narrative of the story, especially during intense scenes and ones where turning points in the plot happen. However, two key places to make sure you’re showing rather than telling are the opening scene and ending scene. While telling sections do serve a purpose and are occasionally the better choice, the majority of readers will connect better with vivid scenes that incorporate frequent imagery, dialogue, and most importantly, emotion.

All that is fine and dandy when you can spot a line that is telling rather than showing, but a lot of us struggle with finding them.

So here are a few tips for identifying and incorporating lines that show:

  1. Think of the scene playing out as a movie, as something happening in the moment. Cameras can’t convey emotion—only actors can. So you’ll have to rely on tone, body language, and interaction with the environment to convey those emotions to your reader in the strongest way possible. Sure, you could just tell them, but which book would you rather read: one that flat-out states the main character is angry or one that shows the main character throwing a chair across the room while veins pop out from his neck?
  2. Eliminate filter words and passive sentences whenever possible. By doing so, your sentences will automatically become more active and draw readers into the scene. That doesn’t mean you can’t have any of these, however. It just means you should use them sparingly and treat them as you would adverbs—too many, and you’re left with fluff. Sometimes you’ll need to use personification to achieve this. For example, instead of saying, “There was a door at the end of the hall,” you can go with, “A door stood at the end of the dimly lit hallway, beckoning him,” for stronger, more active wording.
  3. Strong verbs give your active lines additional spunk! A common problem I run into when editing others’ manuscripts is weak verbs. What do I mean by that? Well, verbs such as walk, run, set, and others that serve their function but don’t incorporate any emotion into the action can be classified as weak. There’s a huge difference between ambling and strutting, just as there is between dropping and slamming. So the next time you find yourself using a weak verb, do a quick search for synonyms and find one that fits the tone and pace of the scene your writing. Just remember that there’s no need to use a bunch of fancy words when a simple one will do. While synonyms can aid you when your mind blanks, they can also become a crutch. Variation in wording isn’t about using challenging terms but rather ones that infuse emotion into the scene.
  4. Sensory details are almost guaranteed to boost the action in your story. Details that clue us into the sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and textures of a scene entice our imaginations and fill them with vivid images that stay with us. They paint such a clear picture of what’s happening in the moment that readers are automatically drawn into the story and connect better with the characters.
  5. Rework any lines with directly stated emotions, teasing them out to use body language that shows them instead. Identify telling lines doesn’t have to be daunting. Apart from the items above, you can hunt for words that are emotions themselves. Generally, tweaking lines with directly stated emotions and replacing them with body language will result in stronger, more compelling imagery. And if you combine that with the above tips, it’ll ensure your scenes and characters burst to life on the page.

When Telling Works

While there are plenty of instances where showing is best suited, there are also exceptions, places where telling will be the stronger option. Showing and telling very much work in unison to paint a clear yet concise picture that readers look for in a great story, but there are key places where telling fits in more naturally than showing.

Examples for when telling works best:

  • When you have backstory that needs to be shared in the context of the current scene without giving too much away
  • During scenes with intense emotions where you need direct information to balance out the drama
  • With high-action scenes to cut down the play-by-play recounting of what’s happening
  • To display thoughts, opinions, and the general viewpoint of the narrator—but only when it’s relevant to the current actions in the plot
  • With details that would be too complicated to show and would bog down the process of moving forward within the scene
  • For a summarization of what’s happened without retelling every event
  • When transitioning from one scene to the next (scene breaks) where detailed action isn’t needed
  • To glaze over necessary, but not crucial, details that are relevant to the current plot

It’s also best incorporated by mixing it with relevant action—and lots of it.

How to Balance the Two

Your primary goal should be to connect readers to the story being told. So if showing is stronger for that part, take advantage of it and bring to life the reader’s senses. If showing keeps the plot from moving forward and slows the reader to the point of boredom, then you’re probably better off telling. However, one thing to keep in mind is that not every scene, thought, or action will need to be included. If a scene doesn’t propel the plot or further develop a character in any way, the best approach is usually to cut it altogether.

Finding that sweet spot for blending both showing and telling takes years of practice, and many of us spend the better part of our writing careers perfecting it.

But with a little research, trial and error, and a good sense of intuition, you can use showing and telling in harmony to create writing that is both enchanting and succinct.

These two styles of writing are meant to complement one another, not compete.

Rachelle M. N. ShawAn avid reader with an incurable need to research everything she comes across, Rachelle is an author of paranormal, horror, and writing craft books as well as the occasional women’s fiction piece. Since scribbling down her first story at the age of eight, her love for language and books has blossomed into a full-time career. She currently works as an independent editor who is passionate about writing in layers and helping authors find their voice. When she’s not busy chasing her kids and two rather persnickety cats, you can catch her blogging, tweeting, or plotting her next series. Her current publications include the first two parts in the young adult paranormal series The Porcelain Souls.

Website: http://rachellemnshaw.com/  Twitter: https://twitter.com/rmnsediting         Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rmnsauthor/  

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Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.