Saturday 14 March 2015

What is it with Show and Tell?

Show don’t tell? I hate seeing that in writing guides or hearing it in writing courses. It’s shorthand, it’s lazy, it isn’t good advice. Show and Tell do different things. They’re both good in the right context and can wreck a piece of prose if you get them wrong, but show isn’t somehow better than tell, it’s just different. Sometimes you need to show the reader what’s happening and sometimes it’s best to tell. The trick is to know when and why to show or tell.

What does 'show' do?
  • Show keeps the viewpoint close behind the eyes of the viewpoint character. The closer you show, the closer the viewpoint.
  • Show brings the reader closer to the action.
  • Show is great for dramatic sequences, for keeping the reader at the edge of her/his seat.
Where ‘show’ is not so good
  • Show is not so good for the more mundane moments. There’s tedium in real life; people don’t read fiction to be immersed in a boring moment.

What does 'tell' do?
  • Tell distances the reader from the action, and sometimes that’s just what is needed.
  • Tell pushes the viewpoint away from the character, makes it more distant, less personal.
  • Tell is the way to allow the reader and the characters a breather after a moment of high drama.
When not to ‘tell’
  • Tell is not the technique to use to involve a reader in a high tension moment.

There’s a short article called Milking the action and emotion: never summarise the dramatic moments that pulls together some of these ideas. It’s from the launch of The Writers’ Toolkit which contains other articles, worked examples and the live critiques that were done during the launch.

The Writers’ Toolkit is available from FantasticBooks Publishing


  1. If I am asked to recommend any books about writing, The Writers' Toolkit is one of them. I refer to it many times when I am both plotting and for the advice on the flow of tension vs coming down scenes.

    1. Thanks, April, I'm glad that it works for you. I'm a great believer in finding the techniques that suit and not assuming that one size fits all. I use the techniques myself - would have felt a fraud writing a book that I didn't actively use myself.