TELLING vs SHOWING Part 2 of 3


Excerpt from A Strategic Path to Writing Mastery

 TELLING: I call this the art of “Tellography.” An author “tells” the story rather than allow the reader to live it vicariously. The advice goes: “tell” as little as possible in your story (very little.) Though it sounds simple, it’s a hard lesson to learn. Here is an example of two ways of “telling” the same incident, and then the right way … “showing”:

Here are some examples of ways some authors boringly “tell”:

Adverbs that end in “ly”: Adverbs ending in “ly” “tell.” “Shut up!” she said angrily. “Angrily” “tells” us how she said it. The “telling” word angrily can be shown with the added advantage of making the tag unnecessary. With the above example “Shut up,” it may be contextually enough to project anger without “telling” the reader how it was said. It depends on what comes before it. If not, “show” it like this, “Shut up!” She slammed her palm against her thigh (an angry action).

Description: Writing description like, “A wave of fear swept over her” (pure “tellography”) is stagnant. The cure is to “show” it. An author can show the fear in the character’s face, write about the changing demeanor, the change in the gait, looking around, stuttering speech, any number of physical descriptors to “show” us the fear washing over her. Here is an example that illustrates how much more interesting a line of dialogue that “shows” is over one that “tells”:


“Land sakes!” Myra said in shock. “Dead fish? You brought dead fish?”


Myra’s jaw dropped open. “Land sakes!” She clasped her throat with one hand while the other splayed across her chest. “Dead fish? You brought dead fish?”

The active example above has more words, but it is far more interesting. When the reader is told that Myra’s in shock, the reader is left to conjure up whatever image comes to mind for shock. However, they don’t have the time because they are continuing to read taking in more language for processing. The active way creates an immediate image, and since it is using body language, Myra becomes animated (and therefore real) in the reader’s mind.

Exposition: There are two kinds of exposition. One comes in little spurts, and is part of the ongoing action or tension in a scene, invisible as exposition. The reader “learns” something about backstory, the character, or the setting without interruption. Then there’s the kind of exposition that is intrusive. It completely stops the story to “teach” the reader something the author thinks the reader should know. Imagine watching the start of a play and this happens:


(Enters stage left and crosses to MARY who has her back to him.) Where were you last night, Mary?


(She spins to face him.) Don’t give me that. I waited as long as I could.


(Enters stage left and runs downstage center facing the audience.) John hired a private eye and had her followed. He hasn’t trusted her since he saw her kissing his boss at the company picnic. (He exits stage right.)

And the playwright enters again and again explaining things to the audience until they understand everything about John and Mary the playwright thinks the audience should know.

Felt: If you’re using “felt,” then you’re “telling.” Avoid it.

Preceded by “in”: When an author writes, “He said in agony,” we are being “told” that he is in a state of agony. If it is written like this, “He writhed,” the super-active verb “writhed” implies “agony”—and we can see him in our minds thrashing about. He comes to life.

Redundancy in Telling and Showing: Sometimes authors “tell” what a character is about to do before “showing” us. I call that, “Tellegraphy.” Since “showing” is far better than “telling” … just drop the “telling” part. Therefore, “Jason stepped toward her and said, ‘Count me in.’” becomes, “Jason stepped toward her. ‘Count me in.’”

Sometimes they “show” us and then “tell” us the character did it, as in, ‘“What planet are you from?” I said out loud.’” The quotes “show” the reader it was said out loud. There’s no need to tell the reader what is already shown.

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