Tell v. show. Show, don’t tell. We hear this all the time, we say it all the time. It is perhaps the one thing about writing craft that nearly everyone agrees with.

So here I am disagreeing.

Only a bit, though.

Pictures show, novels tell. Photo by Sanjay Babaa
Pictures show, novels tell.
Photo by Sanjay Babaa

Always showing, never telling

“Show don’t tell” is one of my favorite pieces of advice. I’m always a fan of observable details. But I think we’ve all gotten a little carried away with it. Here’s the thing: showing and telling are not mutually exclusive. We need both for good storytelling. Let’s do a little example. Imagine a book that opens thusly:

He slid into the room like a mongoose. Her muscles tensed and her heart thundered in her chest. She flexed her fingers and took a step forward, breathing slow and steady through her nose.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

This is a really ambiguous opening, right? I don’t know if she’s waiting to kill him or kiss him. Because it’s all showing. I’m showing what’s happening without giving context. Sometimes, this can work really well. But I find that over the course of a whole book, it’s just as tedious as all telling. Plus, there are only so many physical reactions a body has. Showing can get redundant really quickly.

Let’s add some “telling” lines, eh?

Damien slid into the room like a mongoose. Lucinda was the cobra. When she spotted him, her muscles tensed and her heart thundered in her chest. This was her moment of truth, the moment she’d find out if he was everything she’d thought he was. She couldn’t decide what answer she wanted.

She flexed her fingers and took a step forward, breathing slow and steady through her nose.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.

Now, I still don’t know if she’s waiting to kiss him or kill him–or both–but I have much better context for the interaction thanks to the telling lines. And yes. Those are telling lines.

Good storytelling is about two things: the story, and the experience. “Telling” takes care of the story. “Showing” gives the experience. You need both.

When we talk about Show Don’t Tell™, what we’re really talking about is balancing the two. First drafting ends up with a lot of telling for obvious reasons; you’re getting the story down. That’s why as writers we’re told to show more often than we’re reminded to tell, because all those critiques come AFTER the telling is (mostly) complete.

So what about “filtering”?

This seems like a fairly new term to me for a specific kind of telling, and I think it’s a lot more useful than ‘telling’. Filtering means, as far as I can gather, viewing everything through the POV character’s lens, using words like felt, saw, heard. “She heard the door slam” instead of “The door slammed.” Like I said, useful, especially for sounds and descriptions.

And emotions? Take the sentence “She felt angry.” Very telling, very boring. “She felt angry, her blood boiling beneath her skin” is better, though not much. But this?:

“Anger gripped her heart and squeezed, pumping blood harder and faster through her body. Her head ached as her cranium flooded with the steady, rapid pulse of the stuff.”

Oh yeah. And here is why telling still has a place in writing:

Desire gripped her heart and squeezed, pumping blood harder and faster through her body.”

Showing gives us what we can observe (and I am ever a fan of observable details), but let us remember that telling gives us the framework that grants meaning to those observations. 

So when we critique each other, let’s maybe cool our jets a little on the whole show v. tell thing.

Do you agree, or am I completely off my rocker? Discuss in the comments! 

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12 thoughts on “It’s Called Story-TELLING

  1. Excellent post. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing is straight black or white. Good story-TELLING contains a balance of both showing and telling, a nice shade of gray if you will. It drives me nuts when people comment or write reviews of books, listing “telling” as a downfall. Granted, all telling doesn’t work well, but the key is to write an engaging story. I’ve read plenty of stories with showing, telling, filter words etc that have been totally engrossing. So show on! Tell on! Engage me and I’ll read it. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Summer! It’s definitely a nuanced topic, especially when you start getting into the range of styles across different mediums–short stories versus novels, for example–so I think it’s time we shy away from absolute rules. It’s been really good lately for me to get my head out of manuscripts and start reading published books again, because it really drives that point home! 😀

  2. I had to pin this post. I’ve been worried about the way naming emotions are abhorred. Sometimes, it’s good to name it as it helps us relate better with both the character and the context. At the end of the day, a good story is a mix of showing and telling.
    Besides, how do you skip the boring parts without telling? 🙂

    1. “Show don’t tell” is a piece of advice given to writers during revisions as way to improve the manuscript. It means taking out lines that tell (like “She was angry”) and replacing them with lines that let the reader share in the experience more (like “Her fists clenched as anger swelled hot in her chest”).

      Some people take it to a pretty extreme degree when they’re giving critiques, basically trying to eliminate like 90% of telling from a manuscript, so this is just an argument for a more nuanced understanding of the balance between showing and telling. 🙂

        1. Of course it does! No one’s saying showing is bad. But telling is also a necessary part of writing and a lot of critiques seem to operate from a weird, skewed misunderstanding of what constitutes telling. For example, the bolded lines in one of my examples up there (“This was her moment of truth” etc) are telling lines because some things really can only be told.

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