Know When to Show Not Tell

Copyright Susan Faye Used by permission.

Show don’t tell. Great advice–except when it isn’t. Many writers start out by summarizing (telling) the important moments and showing minutiae.
Writing Tip for Today: How do you know when to show and when to tell?

  • Use the Tension Thermometer. A good way to gauge whether showing or telling is called for is to take the temperature of a scene. The more critical the moment in the story (thereby shooting the tension into the stratosphere) the slower you can reveal it. This means your POV character (and your reader) will experience more in a shorter time span. If your character is cowering while a bad guy is walking through her house, she’ll hear, smell and perhaps see things in great detail. By showing more, you must slow down time. If you slow down time with showing, your reader expects a good reason for that slowing. A really tense good reason.
  • Skip Boring Stuff. By contrast, you want the reader to breeze past places where information is needed (say a passage of time) but not important beyond the orientation it provides. Students often ask me how to write these kinds of transitions. So if character does nothing about the story for a while, just leave out or keep it simple.  Don’t try to get creative here. If needed, state the info in a brief, straightforward way in order to push your reader to the next tense moment. Examples of things you may leave out or tell include: activities we take for granted (bathing, dressing, getting that first cup of morning coffee), anything unrelated to the main story, and time bridges when you need to get the reader from one time period to another or from one place to another.
  • Show the Good Stuff. Think of your novel’s showing bits as currency. You begin with a certain amount of description your reader is willing to absorb. If you blow your whole showing wad on how your character gets ready for the day, or what the scenery looks out out the plane (train, car, stagecoach) window, your reader may become impatient and/or bored when you need to show the most. Use showing when you really need your reader to pay close attention–and telling when you’re trying to get to the next juicy tense scene.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

5 comments on “Know When to Show Not Tell

  1. This was the answer I was looking for. I’ve been trying to work on writing with a little more show/less tell and managed to get so turned around, I wasn’t sure anymore when I should relax into the more passive storyteller voice. Thanks for the advice.

    • Glad you found what you needed! I hope you stop in on Mondays and Wednesday for writing tips you can actually use! Tips & Miss Crankypants also feed to my Facebook Author Page ( which I hope you’ll “LIKE!” Keep Writing. ~Linda

  2. Skipping the boring stuff is great advice. I’m currently editing all the crap out of my WIP, and I’m amazed how much I’ve written which does nothing to further my story.

    Some good advice here. I shall keep reminding myself! Thank you.

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