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What is Show vs. Tell?

This is a question I hear a lot, and it can be confusing. Why? Because there are some grey areas. Whether others have told you this or not, it’s true.


Telling is just having the narrator give your readers information.

Showing is done through character’s actions and dialogue.


I can tell you.


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


I can show you—the grey area way.


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 laughed and stepped over the spilled change and into his office building. “Hey, Bob. See that useless piece of crap out front?” He jerked his thumb toward the door. “I just flipped his cup. He’ll be picking up coins for a while.”


See the difference?


Is Telling Bad?


Telling is not always bad, especially when describing setting and revealing backstories. But you need to mix it up with showing.


Dan strode past Bob’s information desk, to the elevators, and pushed the button. He didn’t always despise the homeless. When he worked for the public defender’s office, he had tossed them more than a few coins.


Is telling bad writing?


No. You need to tell your reader things sometimes. However, large blocks of backstory, like multiple paragraphs, are boring to read and can 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.


Although it is harder to spread out information, it creates suspense for readers. They will want to know what happened to Dan to make him turn into an ass. Taking time to explain or show these things will keep readers reading.


Can there be too much showing?


Absolutely. 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, when they show in blue, and when its a grey area in green. This makes it easier to see how one of your favorite authors mixes the styles and kept you reading.


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