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Show vs. Tell

Updated: Apr 17

Kristin Noland Speculative fiction editor Crime fiction editor

Basically, telling is having the narrator state information. When showing, the narrator takes a step closer to the characters and reveals information through the character’s actions and dialogue.

I can tell you ...

Dan hates the homeless and treats them like they are dirt.

I can show you …

Dan was bragging that he tipped over the can of change a homeless man was holding out and told him to get a job.

I can show you, show you ...

Dan smacked the can out of a homeless man’s hands. “Get a job.” He scowled and stepped over the spilled change into his office building. “Hey, Bob. See that useless man out front?” He jerked his thumb toward the door and laughed. “I just flipped his can. He’ll be picking up coins for a while.”

See the difference?

The first is a fact. The second is recapping an action. The third is showing his actions.

Mix it up

Telling isn't bad.

Sometimes you need to tell your reader things.

However, large blocks of backstory can be boring to read and throw off the pacing of your novel.

Imagine if I went on recapping Dan’s entire 20-year career up to this point where he is a partner at a prestigious law firm and explained why he changed his mind about the homeless. Three paragraphs later, Dan finally steps off the elevator.

It’s too much information at one time and would overwhelm you with facts.

While it is harder to spread out information, it creates suspense. Readers will want to know what happened to Dan to make him turn into a not so nice person.

Taking your time to show backstory keeps readers reading, because they want to find out.

Too much showing.

Constantly showing throws off the pace as well. There is no lull in the action. No time for readers to process what happened.


The trick is to use both wisely.

If you’re not opposed to marking up books, pick one up and highlight when the author tells in pink and when they show in blue. This makes it easier to see how one of your favorite authors mixes the two styles.

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Happy Writing and Revising

Kristin Noland - Speculative and Crime Fiction Editor

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