Writing Practices: Show vs. Tell

Show vs tell - don't let your writing suffer

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Mark Twain

Be Wary of the Chapter 1 Narrative

If you thought the attention span of the average reader was short thirty years ago, that was eternal compared to today. Readers are looking for an easy way to get into the book. Make it interesting, engaging, and maybe even fast-paced. Some novelists put an exciting and mysterious scene at the beginning of their book. Maybe your beginning can have an action that quickly draws the reader into the plot.

What Should You Ask Yourself?

Don’t overwhelm your reader right away. If your work of fiction is a whole new world, treat your reader like a newborn baby. They have to gently enter the world without the jarring trauma of overstimulation. Be careful with your details. Try to think about what’s important in the first chapter. Who are your characters? How are they different from each other? What plot points do you need to drive the story forward? How can you accomplish this by using the most show possible? These are all questions writers should be asking themselves when starting out.

Telling Should be Minimal

The whole purpose of telling is to provide elements that you absolutely need but cannot exactly show. What do I mean by this? Well, the narrator needs to be able to deliver some information to the reader that would either come across as weird if simply shown, or is impossible to show. Think about telling as “setting the stage” where the narrator describes details about the environment, characters’ physical features, or any other details required to advance the plot.

There are exceptions when using a telling technique that can be used for things other than the plot. Let’s say you’d like to use your environment as symbolism for a theme in the book. Maybe your character finds themselves in a church because you’re using religion (for whatever opinion you may have) as a theme. Then you can dive into detail and talk about in what ways the church helps or hurts your character. There’s nothing wrong with symbolism and using the narrative to flesh out metaphors; in fact, good writers and literary critics love that sort of thing. But my point is that everything should be used for a reason. Do the contents of a food pantry really matter if no characters interact with it? Does it matter when there’s no second meaning? Probably not. So don’t drag on with unnecessary details that will inevitably bore the reader out of your story. It’s just not worth it.

When is Telling Useful?

When you’re working a scene and piecing it together, the last thing you want is a “floating head” situation. What do I mean? I’m talking about two characters engaged in a conversation that takes place nowhere because of a lack of environment description and action. Here’s a short example from “Hills Like White Elephants” because it’s one of the best short stories ever and everyone should read it.

The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table.

‘The beer’s nice and cool,’ the man said.

‘It’s lovely,’ the girl said.

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’

The girl did not say anything.

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’


Now here is the same excerpt but without any tell.


‘The beer’s nice and cool,’

‘It’s lovely.’

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig. It’s not really an operation at all.’

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’

‘I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.’


You totally miss out on the subtle environmental details and scenery that set the tone and mood for this scene. Without the description of the warm wind, you have no idea why the man is talking about the coldness of the beer. With the detail left in, you can tell he’s refreshed. The same thing goes for the girl’s mood and emotions. Her shifting gaze toward the floor and her lack of dialogue makes it feel like she’s uncomfortable. It also adds to the uneasiness when you understand that the girl is not speaking, and is quiet.

A question writers should ask themselves when dealing with show and tell should be: does it add a dimension to the story? If it does, good. You’ve done your job and conveyed something more than you would have if there were nothing. You should always be asking yourself whether a telling part is relevant. If it’s not, it may be time to rework it or get rid of it. We always help our clients with that during the editing process, however, so if you need help, we’ll have you covered.  

At AMR Global Marketing, we help authors who are looking for balance. Need your work edited? Click on the link below and let's make your book shine! 

Charlie Michener

Charlie Michener, EditorCharlie is an editor who has worked with bestselling authors. Sporting an undeniable passion for writing and editing, he loves helping writers shine. With a bachelor’s degree in English at CSU Channel Islands and a meticulous eye for detail, Charlie believes in keeping the authors voice when polishing their story. Need your work edited? Click here to contact Charlie.

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