When to Tell, When to Show

“No fiction can or should be all showing and no telling” Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers, by David Madden.

For those of us who’ve been writing professionally for a long time, we’ve heard this mantra repeated often: “show, don’t tell.” Although this is good advice, beginning writers often take this to an extreme and never “tell.” As novelist David Madden said in my quote, good fiction is a blend of showing and telling. If all we do is show, we wear down our readers. If all we do is tell, we bore our readers. So then, what’s the balance? Here are a few tips.

Tips on Telling

Use telling to do the following things:

  • To establish setting and background. This is especially good for historical fiction when events must be placed within a historical context. Historical fiction has more telling in it than other genres. Thus, readers who read this genre expect it. However, don’t use long paragraphs and numerous pages of description. All that’s necessary is the description of a few things to give readers a sense of time and place. Long paragraphs of exposition bog down our stories.
  • Summarize unimportant events. If characters are eating, just tell the readers. However, if what they’re eating and saying is important, then show it in some detail. If a character crosses the street, there’s no need to go into detail (unless it’s important), so just say Jane crossed the street.
  • To move quickly in time or from one setting to another in a story.
  • To avoid repeating the same events over and over, use a narrative summary. For example, if it’s a story about NASCAR racing, use narrative summary till you need to show the final, climatic NASCAR event.

When to Show

Always show a dramatic event. For example, don’t write: John fought off the robbers. Instead, write a scene where we see him fighting the robbers. Let readers see the fists flying, hear the screams, feel the knife blades sticking into flesh, etc.

Always show a character’s emotion. For example, don’t write: Jane got angry. This is telling the emotion. How does Jane show anger? Not everyone shows anger in the same way. I once had a roommate in college who chuckled when he got angry. So, be original when you show emotion. Use fresh metaphors and similes to help readers can visualize it.

Well, I hope you’ll find these tips helpful as you continue your writing journey. Till next week!


Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Second Edition. New York, New York: William M orrow, 2004

Madden, David. Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers. New York and Scarborough, Ontario: New American Library, a Plume Book, 1988.

6 thoughts on “When to Tell, When to Show

Leave a Reply to Pat Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.