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Showing vs. Telling—An Introduction

Saturday, January 13, 2007

1. to cause or allow to be seen . . .
5. to explain or make clear; make known . . .
12. to express or make evident by appearance, behavior, speech, etc.

tell –verb
1. to give an account or narrative of; narrate; relate (a story, tale, etc.) . . .
6. to reveal or divulge . . .
10. to inform (a person) of something . . .
14. to give an account or report.

As writers, we are instructed to “show” not “tell” in our fiction (I’ve heard this is now true with non-fiction, but that’s not my area of expertise). For some reason, this is a hard concept for most of us to grasp. (Ready for the analogy?) Showing versus telling is like the difference between watching a movie and having the plot of a movie recounted to you by someone who’s seen it. Or, between reading a book and reading the synopsis or outline. The first is active, experienced first-hand, immediate. The second is passive, second- or third-hand, distant.

Telling keeps the reader at arms’ length, while showing throws the reader directly in the middle of what’s happening and lets her experience the action through the eyes and ears of the character.

Here’s a classic example of telling narrative:

Her spirits were very differently affected, when, to her utter amazement, she saw Mr. Darcy walk into the room. In an hurried manner he immediately began an enquiry after her health, imputing his visit to a wish of hearing that she were better. She answered him with cold civility. . . .


He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.

In spite of her deeply rooted dislike, she could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affection, and though her intentions did not vary for an instant, she was at first sorry for the pain he was to receive; till, roused to resentment by his subsequent language, she lost all compassion in anger. She tried, however, to compose herself to answer him with patience, when he should have done. He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer. He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security. (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)

One of the most frequent complaints I heard about the 2005 version of the Pride and Prejudice movie was how they had cut/rewritten the “dialogue” from the book in the first proposal scene. But in actuality, there is very little dialogue in the scene—rather we are told what was said rather than just seeing the repartee back and forth between them as we did in the 1995 miniseries. (Am I the only one who really hopes Matthew MacFayden will go ahead and kiss Kiera Knightley at the end of that scene in the new movie?)

Now, here is an example of showing:

Elinor, resolving to exert herself, though fearing the sound of her own voice, now said, “Is Mrs. Ferrars at Longstaple?”


“At Longstaple!” he replied with an air of surprise. “No, my mother is in town.”

“I meant,” said Elinor, taking up some work from the table, “to inquire after Mrs. Edward Ferrars.”

She dared not look up—but her mother and Marianne both turned their eyes upon him. He coloured, seemed perplexed, looked doubtingly, and after some hesitation, said, “Perhaps you mean—my brother—you mean Mrs.—Mrs. Robert Ferrars.”

“Mrs. Robert Ferrars!” was repeated by Marianne and her mother, in an accent of the utmost amazement—and though Elinor could not speak, even her eyes were fixed on him with the same impatient wonder. He rose from his seat and walked to the window, apparently from not knowing what to do; took up a pair of scissors that lay there, and while spoiling both them and their sheath by cutting the latter to pieces as he spoke, said, in an hurried voice,

“Perhaps you do not know—you may not have heard that my brother is lately married to—to the youngest—to Miss Lucy Steele.”

Elinor could sit no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease. (Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen)

Same author, totally different style. In the first, we are told Darcy speaks in a “hurried manner.” In the second, we see Edward’s agitated state by his action of picking up the scissors and cutting the sheath to pieces with it. In the first, we are told what Darcy said. In the second, we hear the dialogue. Granted, neither are good examples of “active” writing (just look at all the occurrences of the verb “was”), but hopefully a comparison of the two will start shedding some light on this “high concept” of writing.

More soon!

  1. Vicki T. permalink
    Sunday, January 14, 2007 4:11 pm

    Bravo! …and thank you! See, I told you I was lurking. 🙂


  2. Erica Vetsch permalink
    Monday, January 15, 2007 6:09 pm

    Ooo, can’t wait for more. This is just what I need to learn more about.


  3. Mary permalink
    Tuesday, February 13, 2007 4:44 pm

    I’m so glad you mentioned this at the ACFW forum. I’m getting better at showing vs telling, but have a lot to learn, especially in using active verbs…

    Thanks for doing this series and the drawing! :O)



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