On Writing: Showing vs. Telling and Why Writers Need Both

By Stacy Melanie Jerger (@ApoideaEdits)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the mantra “show, don’t tell” and I always want to shake my fist and say “not always.”

I don't consider it a concrete rule because it depends where in the story we’re showing or telling.

And believe me, it’s hard to tell the difference a lot. Sometimes we have to squint at our writing and read it slowly, looking for the signs.

Here’s how I differentiate them, and maybe this will help you too.

Showing

Showing is used for: Action. Dialogue. Reactions. Scenes that we want spotlighted, that have emotional impact. Moments that require detail and that we want to bring to the forefront of the reader’s attention.

Showing allows readers to see what's happening before their eyes. Showing can tingle our senses. Showing relies on strong verbs like reached, paid, clenched, roared.

Example: “Nancy jogged through the streets of New York.” We can see Nancy jogging.

  • When showing is used effectively, it creates some powerful, imaginative, emotional action moments.
  • When showing is used ineffectively, it spotlights less important or already known information, slows the pace of our stories, and creates repetitions.

But sometimes, telling is needed.

Telling

Telling is used for: Transitions. Summaries. Descriptions. Less important information that isn’t worthy of the spotlight but readers still need to know, like BACKSTORY.

Telling allows characters to summarize an event to catch each other up without boring readers (especially if readers already saw the characters in the action that’s being recounted). Telling can be used to transition between scenes/locations without seeing a character driving from point A to point B. Telling is description of objects and environments. Telling is the intention to do something using verbs like to, was, but it lacks action. (Janice Hardy explains this really well.) We can't see intentions and reasons--we can only see action.

Example: “Nancy needed to clear her head.” We’re being told what Nancy needs.

  • When telling is used effectively, it improves pacing, summarizes known info, condenses backstory, and conveys mood.
  • When it’s used ineffectively, it turns into things like info-dumps and highlights descriptions that don’t further the plot.

Striking a Balance

Aside from using showing and telling effectively on their own, the key is to find a balance by mixing them together when possible so readers won’t get bogged down by either.

If we combine our examples: Nancy jogged through the streets of New York [showing] to clear her head [telling]. Nancy is in action with a reason.

Here's an example of balancing showing and telling in a published work. I marked off where it switches back and forth. This is from Like a Thief in the Night by Bettie Sharpe:

Sevastien Aniketos was asleep[telling], but his eyes snapped open when Arden tightened her garrote[showing]. God and the Devil, what a beautiful man!Coal black hair, ice blue eyes, snarling lips she longed to taste before the life went out of him[telling].

He even struggled beautifully. His strong, long-fingered hands grasped at her [showing], trying to find purchase on the slick, seamless surface of her stealthsuit. The synthetic black fabric was as slippery as a greased eel and just as hard to hold[telling]. Eventually, his hands fell away and his struggles slowed[showing].

A good writer knows when to use showing or telling and knows how to strike a balance between the two.But every writer needs help, and it’s a skilled editor who helps authors improve these aspects of our writing.

Developmental Editing Helps

How do you know if you’re using these methods effectively? Sometimes you need another set of eyes.

As a developmental editor who focuses on content editing and story development, I pay close attention to areas of showing and telling and help writers use those methods as effectively as possible to strengthen their writing and to improve the overall pacing of their stories.

This is the type of stuff not every copyeditor will include in their tasks, especially if they’re busy correcting grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. I work closely with writers and get deeper into content issues and assist in revision.

When we have good editors on our side who understand our goals, it makes revision less overwhelming!

So what do you think about the age-old argument of showing vs. telling? How does it affect your writing and revision?