Show vs Tell

Authors get this note all the time. “Show, don’t tell!” But what does it mean? Showing helps the reader feel a part of the scene instead of getting a lot of information dumped on them.

Compare these two paragraphs:

Joe went to the corral and decided which horse he wanted to catch. He picked the buckskin stud. He entered the corral and made his way over to the horse, slipping the rope around his neck just before the horse ran. He tied the other end to the post so the horse couldn’t get away. The buckskin fought the rope.


Joe headed to the corral and leaned on the railing. There he was. That buckskin stud was already making eyes at him from across the dusty expanse. Joe climbed between the rails, hefting the lasso in his hand, getting a feel for its weight. He moved alongside the chestnut, then the paint, keeping their bodies between him and the buckskin. He’d almost made it across the corral when the buckskin stuck his head in the air and snorted. Joe darted towards him and tossed the loop over his neck, pulling it tight before he swiftly wrapped the end of the rope around the nearest post, securing the animal. The buckskin reared, pawing the air above Joe’s head with his sharp hooves.

Can you see the difference? Yes, we find out what’s happening in the first paragraph, but there is no sensory input, we don’t feel like we’re in the scene. In the second paragraph, we can see Joe leaning against the corral, making eye contact with the buckskin. We experience how he gets across the corral, closer to his intended target, by staying behind other horses, so he doesn’t spook the one he wants.

Now, all that being said, you want to strike a balance between showing and telling. Obviously, you wouldn’t want to show every detail in your book; it would be an overload. What reader wants to know every detail of your character opening a door, or driving to work? Unless something pertinent to the story is going to happen, these things can be glossed over in a telling mode.

Some stories are submitted that are almost all in telling mode, however. This won’t get your book contracted. Readers don’t want to be lectured to, and they don’t want to be talked at. They want to feel like they’re right there beside your hero or heroine, fighting monsters, facing the enemy, and finding love. Showing eliminates the distance and lets your readers do just that.