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How to use Showing and Telling in Your Writing

Updated on January 31, 2016

Knowing When to Show or Tell is Important

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How to Show and Tell in Your Writing

I am going to tell you how to effectively use showing and telling within your writing. In the literary world we have all heard those elusive terms being banded about, now lets see exactly what they mean.

Basically, it is just two different literary techniques to convey information to your reader. When you show in your writing it is much more dramatic, provides a lot more details and is good to use at key points in your story. When you tell it is less concerned with the scene details and is much more concise and to the point.

To write well you will need to use a mix of both of these techniques within your work. The crucial thing to master is knowing when to use each one. Read on for a more detailed explanation of how to use them and also and for some examples of them both in action.

Two Very Different Ways to Move Your Story Forward

Do you want drama or delivering the details?
Do you want drama or delivering the details? | Source

Examples When you Have Shown

  • 'She ripped the crushed envelope from his hand as hot tears stung her burning cheeks.'
  • 'He shook his head and tried to speak but the words wouldn't come out. He felt a tightening in his throat as he looked at the boy.'
  • 'She jerked awake as her head slipped from the headrest. Her eyes began to close again softly as the train rolled on, making it's sing song noise.'

Showing in Your Writing

Remember your reader is so much more than a mere passenger. Every word you write is ingested and dissected as your reader begins to bond and then become involved with your characters. Your reader wants to be able to think and to become an active participant in your story. They want to feel, see and hear the scene, and they thrive on the excitement of questioning why things are happening the way they are.

To involves involves making the scene stand out by using descriptive language and actually providing a visual image of a character's actions, which demonstrates their mood rather than just stating it.

'Ben was angry.' is telling and states Ben's emotions. However, describing Ben's physical reaction draws the reader in and makes the scene come alive, 'Ben punched the door again and again in sharp jolts, whilst blood ran his arm.'

Make it real and bring it alive.

Disadvantages of This Method

  1. It is a common mistake to over-dramatise parts of the story which aren't important to the plot.
  2. It isn't the best way to jump from one time period to another due to the very nature of it's scene embellishment.
  3. Sometimes emotions need to be portrayed as very raw and very brutal without flourish or dramatisation, or the shocking effect will be lost.


Advantages of This Method

  1. It provides lots of details which create very vivid imagery and that in turn engages the reader's senses and takes them into your scene.
  2. With the additional details it allows key story points to stand out from the text and highlights their importance.
  3. The reader becomes involved in the story. What brought your character to this point? Why are the feeling the way they do? What happened in the character's past? The reader becomes an active participant and has many questions.

Shine a Light on Those All Important Key Scenes

Dramatise the important and advise of the mundane.
Dramatise the important and advise of the mundane. | Source

Examples of When you Have Told

'She was livid when she took the letter.'

'He was shocked his son was a common thief.'

'The train's movement woke her up.'


Telling in Your Writing

To tell means to summarise and state what is happening in your story. When there are points in the story where you need to provide details but the actual scene is not a crucial one to the plot line, telling can be ideal.

When you tell it states the obvious and informs the reader of the information without using descriptive language to create a full visual image. It can be used very effectively to convey the movement from one time period to another within writing.

With a little skill and when it is cleverly written, telling does have the capacity to raise one or two questions for the reader. If you are careful in your choice of the limited information you provide the reader with, then you can leave them keen to keep reading and find out why something has happened.

Disadvantages of This Method

  1. The reader can feel cheated when they are told 'Janice was really angry at Tim.' This is a flat scene, no image of how Janice looked or felt is given.
  2. If the information given to reader is too limited they won't be forming questions or wondering about the characters. In essence they won't be involved.
  3. You need to be aware which parts of the story are important and you need to make sure you that you don't leave key scenes to be relayed by telling.


Advantages of This Method

  1. Telling enables you to give essential information but still keeps that information dealt with in a way which makes it distinguishable from the key scenes in the story.
  2. It provides a good means to switch smoothly from one time period to another.
  3. Sometimes if you give a carefully chosen piece of information within telling, you can leave your reader really questioning what has happened in a character's past, that is making them act in a certain way now.

Choose Your Words Carefully

Remember your are the creator of the fictional world and the only one whom can invite the reader in.
Remember your are the creator of the fictional world and the only one whom can invite the reader in. | Source

The Clear Conclusion

In essence they are two very different literary tools. When you show you use descriptive language, full details and you breathes life into those all important scenes within your writing. When you tell on the other hand, it avoids elaborate description, sticks to the point and is really useful for passing from one time to another, without having to detail ten years worth of history.

The two methods are not exclusive and can only work when fused together within your story. Remember to highlight the important areas by actually showing the actions and emotions of your characters and at the same time, keep those non crucial times detailed as basic and non embellished.

Mix both techniques within your writing and you will find that perfect balance where your reader can walk in your fictional world whilst still being privy with all the information they need.

Mix Both Techniques to Build a Complete Story

Use both tools together to give your story a great foundation.
Use both tools together to give your story a great foundation. | Source

Did you use More Showing or Telling?

Do you favour dramatic showing or summarised telling in your own writing?

See results

Determine Where you Need to Embellish the Scene

Make your fictional world real for your reader.
Make your fictional world real for your reader. | Source

Do you Know Your Showing and Telling?


view quiz statistics

Central Story Points Should be Shown

Make the scene vivid and alive for your readers.
Make the scene vivid and alive for your readers. | Source

© 2014 Anna Haven

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    • Anna Haven profile image
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      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you again Linda Booklady for taking the time to read my article and also for your supportive comment.

    • Linda BookLady profile image

      Linda Jo Martin 3 years ago from Post Falls, Idaho, USA

      Very helpful. My critique partner tells me to include more 'showing' and whenever she writes that, I try to comply. Whenever she gives a suggestion, I take it seriously. This is a good article that explains the use of both showing and telling, and for that, I'm grateful.

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you for taking the time to read and also for your comment DreamerMeg.

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 3 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Useful and interesting. Thanks

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Hi aviannovice. Thank you very much for reading and I am glad you found it useful.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I never realized that there was any difference to these tools--thanks for clarifying them.

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thanks Nell. I know sometimes the urge to show for me is hard to rein in. :)

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      Great advice Anna, yes sometimes a story can be 'wrong' or sound wrong if it doesn't balance both up, I try to do both, but sometimes one overtakes the other! lol!

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Hi Genna. Thank you very much for reading and for your kind comment. :)

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 3 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Very interesting aspect of writing...and one that is not easy to do. It takes practice, although some writers seem to be able to master this very easily. I enjoyed this hub. :-)

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you very much DDE for taking the time to read and for your kind comment.

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you Audrey. I am glad that you visited today too and I do really appreciate it.

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you rebeccamealey very much. I am glad you liked it.:)

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      It does epbooks. I think it is always more fun to writing 'showing' than 'telling.' Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Well-advised and so informative.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 3 years ago from California

      Such a helpful article on the subject Anna--I was so glad to come upon this piece today

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks, read this twice! SO helpful! Sharing for sure!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Very helpful article. It's definitely important to "Show" a lot of the time. Helps spark the reader's imagination!

    • Anna Haven profile image
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      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thanks Faith Reaper. It is nice to think that your work is evolving the right way. :)

    • Anna Haven profile image
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      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you Jodah. I am glad it was helpful and I look forward to reading more of your stories.

    • Anna Haven profile image
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      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you very much FlourishAnyway for your kind comments.

    • Anna Haven profile image
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      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you Parrstar for reading, your interesting comment and for the vote.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Congrats on being in the top ten Hub Pot challenge! Well-deserved!

      Blessings,

      Faith Reaper

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This was very helpful Ann. I haven't written a lot of stories and have only started to expand into that side recently. This advice is very sound and I will put it to good use.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      This was detailed, excellent advice and the examples clearly demonstrated the concepts you are describing. Wonderful job! Having such interesting, original photos to complement your work is a big bonus, too.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 3 years ago from Oz

      Thanks for this. Showing and Telling. Makes it easier when writing to have defined terms to reference rather than vague ideas of good form. I will always think now, 'am I showing or telling in this moment'. Voted up

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you very much for reading Frank and also for the vote. :)

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you Eddy for your kind comment and for reading. You have a great day too. :)

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment Greatstuff. I think it is an ongoing learning curve for all of us. :)

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Hi Bravewarrior

      Sounds good advice. The characters definitely stand out when they have their only quirks and traits. I like your phrase 'painting a picture with words.' It is very true.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. :)

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thank you Faith Reaper for reading and sharing. You are right factual articles definitely benefit from a no flourish effect. Hope you have a great day too.

      Anna :)

    • Anna Haven profile image
      Author

      Anna Haven 3 years ago from Scotland

      Thanks Bill. Writing is a learning curve which never really ends. :)

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      very good advice.. sometimes we forget these little helpful hubs voted useful

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      Brilliant Anna; interesting and useful. Here's to so many more hubs for us both to share on here. Wishing you a wonderful day.

      Eddy.

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 3 years ago from Malaysia

      Enjoyed reading this very useful guide, not sure if I can really master it! Thanks for sharing.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 3 years ago from Central Florida

      Anna, I'm taking a fiction writing course and one thing my professor has brought to my attention is to describe body language my characters portray. This helps not only distinguish their mood but also personalizes them. The reader will identify characters with their quirks or habits. It's all about painting a picture with words.

      Good article!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 3 years ago from southern USA

      Excellent article dear Anna! I learned a lot here. I can see how using both at the appropriate time improves one's writing immensely. However, in some articles, not a story per se, let's say a recipe or such, one would not want to embellish so much to where the person gives up on just wanting to get to the recipe to read.

      Wonderful photos as always. Up and more, pinning, tweeting and sharing

      Enjoy your day,

      Faith Reaper

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sound advice, Anna! This is one of those things that develops over time with practice and a willingness to improve. Some writers never master it....for some it comes naturally....but it is essential for good writing.

      bill