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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Show versus Tell, example two

From contest entries and critiques that I’ve done, I’ve noticed that often people don’t quite understand what exactly is “showing” and what exactly is “telling.” So, I’m doing this series to give numerous examples so that you can see for yourself the various kinds of “telling” that can occur in your own manuscript, and suggestions for fixing it.

She looked out at the high school. Three years ago, she’d been secretary there, and now she was secretary for the intermediate school instead.

The second sentence is “telling” the reader about the character. This information is the kind of thing that could probably be more actively “shown” in dialogue. For example:

(This conversation might be something that comes later in the story)
He took her hand. “Why don’t you come work for me at the high school?”

She pulled her hand away. “Nuh-uh. I already did that.”


“I was secretary at the high school three years ago. Now I’m at the intermediate school.”

“So I’m three years too late.”

His flirtatious tone both thrilled and annoyed her. “Who’s to say I’d have stayed if you’d been Principal?”


The question to ask is: Does the reader need to know she’d been secretary at the high school three years ago right at this moment in the story? Does the reader need to know she’s secretary for the intermediate school right at this moment in the story? If they don’t, then save it for later when the information is vital to the current action.

For example, say the story goes:

She looked out at the high school. Three years ago, she’d been secretary there, and now she was secretary for the intermediate school instead.

If she’d still been there, she’d be one of the dead bodies on the lawn, just another victim of the bombing. The thought sent a spasm through her as if her innards were trying to wiggle out of her skin.

In this example, then yes, the reader needed to know she’d been the high school secretary because the scene affects her emotionally, thinking she could have been one of the bombing victims.

However, if the story goes on to talk about something else, then the second sentence in the example—talking about being secretary at the high school three years ago—is not only “telling” the reader about the character, it’s extraneous information. Delete it and save it for later.


  1. Thanks for this series. I usually recognize when I'm telling rather than showing, but your examples are helping me improve in that area.

    One thing I'm not always clear on, though, is how you know when telling might be better, particularly in terms of the amount of words used. For example, you can tell something in a single sentence, or you can use six lines of dialogue to show it. If it's really significant to the story, you want to take the time to show it.

    But if it's just general background information, perhaps just telling it in that single sentence is a better use of word count -- or so I've always understood.

    But how do you know when it's better just to tell something in a few words rather than spend more time showing it?

  2. CDP, that's an excellent question. Unfortunately, the answer is a bit fuzzy.

    It's pretty much up to you as the writer.

    One rule of thumb I tend to go with is that if I do any telling, it has to be short, like one line or two at most.

    Now, I've seen books with one line of telling here and there, and the prose reads smoothly and steadily.

    However, I've also seen books with one line of telling here and there, and it makes the prose bland, sluggish, and boring.

    I think it depends on if you feel the one line of telling makes your story flow better than six lines of dialogue, or if the six lines of dialogue add to the overall vividness of the prose too much to take them out.

    James Scott Bell actually talks about when to "tell" in chapter 8 of Revision and Self-Editing. Basically, if you're "telling" in order to transition the character from one place to another or one time to another (unimportant events), then feel free to "tell" and do it quickly.

    However, if the "telling" sentence refers to emotion, or personality, then you should "show" it for maximal impact.


  3. There is one circumstance where telling is actually better than showing. If the reader already knows the event and the character needs to describe it to a police officer, telling is better than recounting the same story--i.e., he told the officer what happened. Then go to the new information that is shown.

    The fourth Harry Potter book showed Harry going to through a very harrowing scene in a graveyard. Then he comes back and recounts the whole thing for Dumbledore. The story loses it's momentum there because the reader already knows what's happened.


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