“Show, don’t tell” is something of a mantra for fiction writers.
Here’s an example of both:
Telling: “Close the door,” she said nervously.
Showing: Her cigarette trembled in her hand: “Close the door.”
Telling: Peter was a fussy, neat sort of man.
Showing: Every Monday, Peter ironed and folded his towels into perfect squares and stacked them in the airing press, according to size and colour.
“Showing” your reader what your protagonist is thinking/doing, encourages your reader to engage more with your book/story/play, to interpret and picture what is going on. Showing also allows for more atmosphere and lends insight into character. Conversely, “telling” tends to deliver all the information neatly wrapped and can deny the reader all the fun of involvement and imagining.
Therefore, rather than telling the reader, ‘Bob was depressed,’ you might describe what Bob was doing and saying and the reader will also get a greater sense of ‘Bob’ if you do so.
Having said that, if the writer “shows” every inch of their novel it may bore the reader and slow the pace. There are times, for the sake of speed and economy, the writer needs to “tell”, so they can quickly move on to the next stage of the story.
If I could suggest a rule of thumb, it would be “show” the most important parts/events of the story and “tell” the minor linking passages. It’s your judgement call as to when and where to show or tell, but do give it thought.
Finally, please bear in mind the general consensus is that you always avoid telling via adverbs in speech attribution: “he said arrogantly”, “she shouted defiantly”, “we mumbled apologetically”. Instead, try to think of ways you could show this arrogance, defiance or apology.
From Ireland, Sue Healy is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre, London, a full-time Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. Her book on theatre literary management is published by Routledge, December 2022.
Sue is an award-winning writer for stage, TV, and prose writer.
Her current project, a 6x60minute TV series, is under option. She is under commission with Lone Wolf Media, producers behind PBS’ “Mercy Street”, to co-write the pilot and treatment for a six-part TV series.
Her most recent stage-play, Imaginationship (2018), enjoyed a sold out, extended run at the Finborough and later showed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Her previous stage productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s short plays have been performed at the Criterion (Criterion New Writing Showcase), Arcola (The Miniaturists) and Hackney Attic (Fizzy Sherbet Shorts).
Her radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm.
Sue has won The Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award, Meridian Prize and has been published in nine literary journals and anthologies including: The Moth, Flight, Tainted Innocence, New Writer, Duality, HISSAC, New European Writers. She has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from annual artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy.
An academic with a PhD in modern theatre history, specifically the Royal Court Theatre, Sue has presented her research internationally. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She has a PhD in modern theatre history (Royal Court Theatre) and is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumnus.
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September 9th, 2011 at 21:11
Always good advice. I tend to slip into the adverb attribution and have to watch that.
September 9th, 2011 at 21:21
Hi Gillian, thanks for the comment. Yup, me too. In fact, my first drafts break every piece of advice I’ve ever listed on this blog – which makes editing a long process : ) When writing my first draft, i use adverbs (in speech attribution and elsewhere) as a shorthand for what I want to ‘show’ – and do so when I come back to revise and edit…
September 10th, 2011 at 01:19
Here here to editing! By the way, if any of your readers are still tempted to use adverbs to describe how things are said, here’s a good rant against using words other than (or in addition to) “said” as dialogue tags: http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue%205/tags.htm
September 10th, 2011 at 01:30
“Having said that, if the writer ‘shows’ every inch of their novel it will be boring for the reader – too slow and long winded to be enjoyable. There are times, for the sake of speed and economy, the writer needs to ‘tell’, so they can quickly move on to the next stage of the story.”
So true! I was reminded of this last week while editing/rewriting a chapter. I zoomed in on too many small details, and the word count somehow kept growing and growing and growing…
Sometimes you just have to summarize stuff (though still find a way to make it entertaining) and go for a broader sweep, if the “showing” descriptions are hampering the pace of the story.
September 10th, 2011 at 12:24
As ever, you nail sound advice with simple clarity.
I’ve been pondering the Show/Tell issue myself this week. Final (she prayed!) revisions are a last chance to get the balance right.
September 10th, 2011 at 14:08
The last part about adverbs in speech attribution really hit home. I do it all the time!
I think I take for granted that the meaning can be conveyed in the speech. I guess I also shouldn’t underestimate the reader because I always feel if I don’t write “he said sarcastically…” then they might not get that he was being sarcastic!
September 10th, 2011 at 16:23
You give really sound and practical advice for writing.
But frankly I wonder how you found my blog and decided to follow me; thanks 🙂
September 12th, 2011 at 20:05
This is a great reminder of a principle that I know in my head but too often forget when I’m writing.