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Showing and Telling - How to Tell Effectively

by DarkPandemonium

This is the first draft of an article I'm hoping to submit to the Writing Tutorials forum on YWS. All criticism is welcome, but I particularly want to know whether you think the structure works, if the explanations are clear, and if the article itself is helpful. I'd also love people to point out if anything can be cut out or shortened, because I do sometimes ramble a bit, and if the examples themselves are effective. Something tells me I might have overused my commas in the 'Good Telling' sample, so guidance as to how to get that example as well-written as possible would be very much appreciated.   

If you’ve been posting on YWS for some time, odds are you’ll have seen the words ‘show, don’t tell’ more times than you can count. It’s the oldest piece of writing advice in the book, and while it is incredibly important, it is often simplified. ‘Show, don’t tell’ suggests that showing is good and telling is bad, but both are necessary when telling a story.

For anyone who hasn’t come across this piece of writing advice, the distinction is as follows:

Telling – Stating information explicitly for the reader. Some writers refer to it as ‘informing’ (e.g. ‘he was angry’).

Showing – Implying information in such a way that the reader has to infer the meaning for themselves (e.g. ‘he clenched his fists’).

Most of the time when people say ‘show, don’t tell’, what they really mean is ‘don’t tell in this context’. Every story contains a balance of showing and telling, and the trick to good writing is figuring out when each technique is appropriate.

Showing is usually suitable when:

  • Dramatic action is unfolding.
  • Your characters are in conflict and emotions are high.
  • You are writing about a major plot development.
  • Crucial information is being revealed to the reader (such as a plot twist).

Telling is usually suitable when:

  • You are establishing a new scene or chapter and want to quickly get your reader up to speed with what is happening/has just happened.
  • You need to fill the reader in on necessary, brief information.
  • You want to pass quickly over a period of time.

So, having assured the importance of telling, another question springs to mind. How do you tell well? Believe it or not, telling requires as much delicacy as showing – it isn’t just a matter of unloading information on the reader. Let’s look at some examples of bad and good telling.

Bad Telling

It was snowy in December. I tried to build two snowgirls in the garden, but it was too cold, so I only managed to construct one. Seeing it standing by itself reminded me of my own situation, which upset me, so I destroyed it.

A few weeks passed but the police still didn’t make contact. At Christmas, my mother drank too much wine and acted distraught all day, then went to bed early. When I went up soon after, I slept in Haylee’s bed, but she had been gone so long that it seemed like it had never belonged to her.

Good Telling

When December came, frost crept over the branches of the oak tree, and within days white blanketed the entire garden. I tried to build two snowgirls in the middle of the lawn, but the cold bit right through my gloves and I could only finish one. She looked lonely by herself. I kicked her over.

The weeks melted with the ice, but we still didn’t hear anything. On Christmas Day, Mum chugged a whole bottle of wine and pushed her dinner away, then went to bed even before Strictly came on. When I went up after her, my feet turned left instead of right, carrying me to Haylee’s room. Inside, the moonlight made sparks of the dust motes. When I slid into her bed, I couldn’t smell her on the pillows at all.

These are both examples of telling because the narrative has a significant distance to it, but the second improves on the first in a number of ways. Let’s break it down.

  • Where the first example is vague, the second is specific. While it may not cover a breadth of detail, it still picks out key images, painting brief snapshots of the passing days. In the first example, we know that it snowed, but in the second we get precise information about the frost on the tree and a garden lost to whiteness. In the first example, we know it was ‘too cold’, but in the second, said cold bites through her gloves. Telling is and should be briefer than showing, but that doesn’t mean you should lose sight of the detail. It’s like flipping quickly through a picture album – the detail is all there in the photos, but you’ll only see parts of it before you move on.
  • In the second example, the progression is symbolised in tangible events and actions. The passage of time is embodied in the ice melting; the mother’s despair is embodied in her drinking and refusal to eat. Haylee’s long absence is represented by the dust in her room and the fact that the narrator can no longer smell her on the pillows. Even though the writing is telling, it still leaves room for inference and interpretation, just like showing does.
  • The second example maintains a sense of the narrator’s voice. Because telling is often used as a summary device, some writers become clinical and removed from the narrator’s perspective when they do it. In the first example, we see ‘my mother’, whereas in the second we see the more personal ‘Mum’. ‘Drank’ is swapped out for the more casual ‘chugged’. The language in the second example is generally less formal, creating more of a sense of this particular narrator’s voice.

I have exaggerated the differences between the two examples so as to make them easier to compare, so in the interests of keeping it relatable to real writing, let’s briefly look at an example of telling from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

When we were children, Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the driveway of my father’s house and annoy our neighbors by reflecting sunlight into their homes with a shard of mirror. We would sit across from each other on a pair of high branches, our naked feet dangling, our trouser pockets filled with dried mulberries and walnuts. We took turns with the mirror as we ate mulberries, pelted each other with them, giggling, laughing.

As with the second example, the passage is specific; Hosseini does not only say that the two boys annoyed the neighbours, but specifies that they did it by reflecting sunlight into their houses with a mirror. Hosseini also symbolises information through events and actions – he never states that the boys were friends or that the memory being recalled is a happy one, but represents it in the playful way they pelted mulberries at one another and the mentions of giggling and laughter. The third point is hard to gauge from a single passage, but having read the book I can testify that the narration is consistent with the rest of the prose – it does not break from the main character’s typical style.

So, with all of that analysis in mind, here are my guidelines for good telling:

  • Keep it brief. Telling should be interspersed with showing, and the purpose of it should be to propel the story towards the next active scene.
  • Be specific. Don’t tell us the weather turned bad; tell us the rain battered the windows and turned the garden into a swampy mess. Don’t say the main character grew listless and sad; say they would find themselves pacing the house at night, forever tired but unable to sleep. As far as you can, show within your telling.
  • Maintain your narrator’s voice within telling passages. This is true for writing in third person, as well – third person narration still tends to be coloured by the POV character’s outlook, and that shouldn’t be lost during telling and exposition. If it starts to feel like a clinical list of events, the reader will be pulled from the story.

Unlike with showing, where you can reach for useful guidelines like ‘delete unnecessary adverbs’ and ‘use dialogue’, there aren’t many obvious rules for telling. A lot of it comes from intuition and experimentation. To anyone who wants a bit more information about showing and telling, as well as telling from a third person perspective, I’d suggest you check out this excellent article, which is what inspired me to make this thread in the first place.

If there’s anything else you’d like me to discuss in this article, please let me know!   

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116 Reviews

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Tue Sep 12, 2017 9:32 pm
Wriskypump wrote a review...

"A few weeks passed but the police still didn’t make contact. At Christmas, my mother drank too much wine and acted distraught all day, then went to bed early. When I went up soon after, I slept in Haylee’s bed, but she had been gone so long that it seemed like it had never belonged to her." - You list this as an example of bad telling. Honestly I liked this movement of events the way it was said, and hated the way you described it in the good telling because it was just too much information and I felt like I got it all here in this first time.

I do agree with you on most of your points tho, although I strongly feel there is some level of opinion which belongs to each reader when it comes to issues like this. I for one, am sort of a fan of a lot of adjectives where a lot of people like that balanced. It's very interesting to read when those are whizzing around like bullets.

But yes, in a lot of instances it is best to be specific, maintain your narrator's voice. Still though, when it comes to telling and showing, as long as someone isn't telling everything the whole time -- as long as they show at the rate of about 30% of the narration, I'm down with that.

~ Stand with your neck out there; life's worth death playing it in timid pretense

Obviously there is a lot of subjectivity in this - guides are just guides, and all writing rules can be broken. I wonder if your preference for the first example might be a bit influenced by the fact that you read it first, which meant that the second example felt like repetition. Still, I'll look at toning down bits of the second example. Thank you!

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Tue Sep 12, 2017 11:50 am
ardentlyThieving wrote a review...

Hey hey, Ardently! here for a review!!

Figured reading this will give me pointers AND let me work closer to my sweet, sweet RevMo success and second star, and hey! I wasn't wrong.

I think most of this article was really clear! You started off with the definitions, then explained in more detail the difference between telling well and telling bad. It was a nice, logical order that my brain felt easy to understand. The one unclear thing I think was pointed out by my fellow reviewers: you mentioned showing and telling in the title, but then barely touched on showing at all in the actual report. I feel like you should make it clearer if this report is only about telling, if it's the first part of something that's then going to go into more detail about showing, or if something else is going on. Just a little bit confusing there.

One thing I found really helpful was when you mentioned what context you should tell and what context you should show. That's something I sometimes have a lot of trouble figuring out, so I'm glad you stated it so obviously and concisely. I always found your explanation that it's more "don't tell in this context", quite useful. I also wasn't aware that there was good and bad ways to tell, I thought it was just good and bad times to tell, so I'm glad you brought that to my attention.

Speaking of the examples between good and bad telling, they also helped. The differences between them were nice and obvious for me to see, but then you went into further detail about the specifics, which I found really helpful as well.

In summary this was a really helpful article, that I'm definitely going to refer to in the future for writing help!

~ Ardently! <3 ~

I'm glad you found it helpful! I'm going to redraft it to include showing pointers as well, because like you say I think it does make sense to touch on both. Thanks for the review! :)

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Tue Sep 12, 2017 1:41 am
Mea wrote a review...

Since I encouraged you to post this, I thought it'd be only fair to drop by with a review on it.

The Good:
This was definitely a helpful article. In particular, you articulated something I had been trying to put my finger on for ages - what makes transitions through large periods of time work well. I always think of Harry Potter when I think about those kinds of transitions because JKR is great at them, but I couldn't figure out why. But you've articulated it perfectly - it's the details. So yay, I've learned something new.

The format of the article is clear and easy to read, always a plus. I didn't have to re-read anything to understand it. It also got straight to the point, which was very refreshing.

The Less-Good (i.e. my suggestions):
I agree with Kays that your definition of showing could use some work, especially because the line is kind of blurry. In your "fists clenched" example, that sight so automatically translates to anger that people might not notice the difference. And one singular, lowly detail doesn't paint the picture we think of when we think of "showing."

I think you skim too much over when showing vs. telling is appropriate - you could go into more detail about situations where telling in particular would be appropriate. For example, even though this is how the Kite Runner example used telling, you didn't mention that you can use telling to cover past events/reminiscence in the place of a full-on flashback - to show how the main character used to do things. Since new writers tend to butcher telling about things or events in a character's past, I think you should mention that specifically.

Something to else consider: you could switch the order of the sections, and talk about how to tell before asking the question "when to tell?" I think this will help prime readers so they already have a sense of when telling is appropriate based on the examples you've given (of which you could maybe add one or two more), and then in your explanation of when it's appropriate, you can refer back to those examples since you've already introduced them. However, I'm mostly suggesting this as a way to shake things up and see if it winds up better - it might not.

The ending in particular felt thin and somewhat more like a beginning than a conclusion, although I'm glad you linked the article that inspired this. The recap of your tips is good, but after that it just trails off.

I don't think you need to add a section about showing - the focus of this article is telling, and that's perfectly fine, but if you want to, it would fit in pretty well.

And that's all I've got! Can't wait to see this as an article. :)

Thank you! I'll definitely work on a writing stronger definitions and examples of showing and telling - I glossed over it a bit because it's a topic that's so often covered and I unconsciously assume everyone understands it. And I think I wasn't sure how long the article should be seeing as most in resources are pretty short, which might explain the rushed ending. This is really helpful though, so thank you.

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Tue Sep 12, 2017 12:32 am
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Kaylaa wrote a review...

Hi there DarkPandemonium. I thought I'd go ahead and give this a review as the Resources mod that I am because I'll be taking a look at this in the future anyway, I may as well start early! With that being said, let's delve right in.

The title here is a little confusing--is the aim of the article to explain how and when to show and tell effectively or only how to tell effectively? The opening paragraph suggests for both although the second half of the title doesn't and complicates the matter more than the matter needs to be complicated. For ease of the reader, I'd change 'Showing and Telling--How To Tell Effectively' to simply 'Showing and Telling'. The distinction of showing and telling I felt is a little off?

There's not a lot of personal flavour added to that part and ends up being a little too technical in a way? I don't feel as if that's properly explained. I'm going to steal a bit from another article I read on showing and telling to give a more strong definition of the two:

Basically, the distinction is this: telling merely catalogs actions and emotions, showing creates images in a
reader’s imagination. It’s the difference between the laundry list and the laundry
To give credit, the link to that is here and while I don't see this as the best article on the topic, the definition gives the reader a visual on the definitions. Moving off of that, what I did enjoy seeing quite a bit is where showing and telling are more suitable--that part is great.

The example taken from The Kite Runner is another aspect of the article that's done well--great example with great analytical thoughts to go along with that. What I'd end up changing is adding in a section for what makes well-executed showing as well. The point can still be gotten across that telling is important in an article about both showing and telling--I'd love to hear your take on what good showing is as well as bad showing and to see this article made to be more dual-wielding in having both. Adding a stronger conclusion to the article is something else I'd like to see added in.

At the end of the article, you asked what you wanted to see added in--I want to see a conclusion that wraps this up with a neat little bow, a section on good and bad showing and more of those lovely examples that are given added in and discussed in the article. If anything, this piece is cut a little short on content and the example for good telling can be reworked to be stronger. Showing us more types of bad telling and how to avoid them is also something to think about adding.

If you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask! I hope I helped and have a great day. Can't wait to see the edits and revisions done to this to make this stronger.




Thank you! I never originally planned on doing a section on good showing because there is an article somewhere in resources that seems to focus exclusively on showing, however I can absolutely see the sense in putting examples in for how to do that well too. You mentioned reworking the good telling example to be stronger - can you tell me what parts of that example fall short? :)

Kaylaa says...

Ah, your good telling example specifically with the amount of commas and generally there's room for rewording there. I get the idea of what you're attempting to do but I'm not quite sold on exactly good telling is from the article.

Okay, I'll take a look at it.

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