Showing Or Telling?

Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Showing vs telling.
Scene vs voice over.

Show, don’t tell.

Most of us have seen this comment hundreds of times, penned into the margins of our manuscripts. We’re being told to create a scene in place of whatever detail we’ve just told. A big part of knowing when to show and when to tell is knowing how each is most effectively used. 

Showing is all about creating scenes. These scenes show the characters attempting to meet some goal and, more often than not, failing. The characters then regroup and come up with a new goal. Scenes pull the reader in because this is where they meet our characters and get caught up in our carefully crafted plots. But showing isn’t always better. 

Telling is a great way to foreshadow. “Beck had planned everything out. There was no way things could go wrong.” Right away we are all on the edge of our seats waiting to see how the author is going to mess up Beck’s life. 

Telling is the way to go for transitions, including when you need to show the passage of time. “After Beck got ready for work” is so much better than showing us Beck’s morning routine, unless that routine reveals something surprising. Is Beck creating a to-do list that includes revenge on the person who messed up his great plan? That’s something you might want to show in an actual scene. 

But how do you know for a fact that you are successfully doing one or the other? That you are telling vs showing or vice versa? 

I was fiddling around online a couple of days ago when I found this Writer’s Digest post by Roseann Biederman. Her test for showing vs telling is simple – if the camera can show it, that’s showing. 

I would add two things and expand on this a little: 

First, think of your camera as having sensory-surround, because showing can involve all the senses. In fact, I make sure that every page includes three different sensory perceptions. That keeps me from only including sight. So maybe you could say “can you sense it?” If so, that’s showing. 

Second, if it sounds like a voice over, it is most likely telling. (Clearly I have been spending far too much time with Save the Cat.) But what do I mean by does it sound like a voice over? Take this sentence as an example: Beck had an exemplary sense of direction. Definitely voice over and if I was the director it would voice over a scene showing Beck making a wrong turn and ending up at a dead end or passing the same land mark time and time again. But, yes, this does sound like a voice over so it is definitely telling. 

Show, don’t tell. Scene or voice over. You need to know how to do both because the correct choice depends on what you are trying to do.


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of over 30 books for young readers.  To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.

The next session of her new course, Pitching, Querying and Submitting Your Work will begin on December 6, 2021).  Coping with rejection is one of the topics she will cover in this course.

Sue is also the instructor for  Research: Prepping to Write Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins December 6, 2021) and Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults (next session begins December 6, 2021). 


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--This is a great post. I plan to use it with my students, because they need to be reminded to show, not tell. (The "sensory-surround" part is particularly perfect, because that is something they can relate to.)

Right now I'm working on writing a screenplay, and it's an odd process. All the "action" has to be told, so it's clear what the camera would see. I'm choosing to have Henry do voice-overs... Otherwise, how would some of his thoughts be part of the film? My goal is to finish the first draft by the end of November.

Are there 64 days in the month of November? I sure hope so...

Renee Roberson said...

You are so good with this in your own writing, Sue. I remember what a big help you were when you edited my "Monster in the Woods" piece. The project I'm working on for NaNoWriMo is so heavy with dialogue and I already know it's going to need some heavy sensory details added in during the revision process. It has the North Carolina mountains, a summer camp, a cult, a protagonist who has insomnia and strange dreams where her missing sister visits her, etc. I like the tip about "can the camera see it?" I'll have to reread this when I'm in revision mode.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Thank you! Roseann's piece definitely helped me "see" it all in a new light. My first drafts always have portions that are dialogue heavy, portions that are all action, and then decription heavy sections. Balance is something I have to find in the rewrite.

I do hope it helps your students! We went to a sensory surround exhibit on Pompeii. The younger patrons were all "this is so cool." The full on adults were looking around for the source of the heat, trying to figure out who had on the nasty cologne, etc.

I've not written a screenplay but I think it is very like my graphic novel script. So different! Good luck with your project!

Angela Mackintosh said...

This is a great post, Sue, and an easy way to remember show vs tell. I read that exercise before about the camera, and I think it was from an old Writer's Digest craft book on scene. You can't have one without the other because if you really write like you're viewing it through a camera lens it ends up coming off distanced, stilted, and lacks that closeness that can only come from a character's interior headspace. I personally love "telling" when it's done in character voice/narration as a way to bring the reader into the character's world. My first drafts tend to be written all in scene, and then I add more narration into it for transitions, but the past year or two I've been working on telling more, putting more voice into pieces, but my writing groups haven't been receptive to it. Lol! Sensory detail is usually my final touch since I only use sight and sound in my first drafts. You're so right, balance is key!

Renee, your novel sounds phenomenal and like something I'd love to read. I'm fascinated by cults, and a summer camp setting?! LOVE it. Sounds horror-ish. Make it the 80s, and I'm totally there. :)

Sioux, are you working on the screenplay for Greenwood Gone?? How exciting!

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