Show and Tell

Remember in kindergarten when you got to bring an item for show and tell? You got to show your possession and tell your classmates all about it. Well, in writing, it’s a bit different.

When we show something to the reader, we’re trusting them to fill in some of the blanks. We’re letting them use their imagination. We don’t have to say George walked across the room to the front door, reached for the door knob, turned it, pulled the door open, and peeked outside. We can say George opened the door slightly and peeked outside. Our brain fills in the rest. We only need to put in the important, interesting details.

When we’re telling something (and it is necessary sometimes), we’re explaining. Use this only when needed. For instance, if the scene takes place in a shipyard, it may be necessary to explain what the main character is seeing to a certain extent to understand what’s going on. Most people today don’t understand that rivets were put into the steel while they were red hot and that young boys were there to catch them. How would you like your son doing that job today? Sure, times were different then, but that’s one of the reasons why you’d put in some narrative here to explain the scene. It pulls the reader into the setting.

When we read, we’re dealing with the inner ear and the inner eye. Our inner ear deals with the narration of the story. Our inner eye is our imagination that pulls out the imagery the words written on the page bring forth in our heads as we read. Knowing how the brain works in this way is important when you write the story. Why? Because too much telling to that inner ear tends to lull the reader to sleep. Unless you’re writing a book intended to cure insomnia, that’s probably not your intent.

Let’s try an example. Let’s look at a fairy tale… Cinderella. The prince is going through the town, trying to find the girl who fits the glass slipper. He shows up at the home of Cinderella and her stepsisters.

The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She thought about the time she’d spent with the prince. It had been wonderful. She remembered those moments at the ball, when she’d felt so special. Then she thought of her stepmother, and the tongue-lashing that would surely follow if she asked to try on the slipper. Her thoughts drifted to her life spent waiting on her stepsisters hand and foot, wearing their cast off rags.

So is she going to step forward and try on the shoe or not? I see a lot of manuscripts like this. The writing’s not bad, but you get so stuck in the internal monologue that nothing happens. Cut to the chase, my dear.

The prince tried the slipper on first one sister, then the other. Neither could get their foot in the dainty slipper. Cinderella hovered in the doorway, wondering if she should ask for her turn. She glanced at the prince, then at her stepmother. She took a deep breath, pulled her shoulders back, and stepped into the room.

“Excuse me. May I try on the slipper?” she asked.

Isn’t that better? You get the idea she’s tossing around what she should do because she looks at the prince, then her stepmother. That’s enough right there to show she’s weighing her options. Then she pulls her act together and steps forward. Action! Of course, it always blows my mind that she has to actually try on the dang shoe. Doesn’t the prince recognize her face when he sees her? Or did he spend the entire ball looking at her foot?

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.