Saturday, May 2, 2009

Show and Tell

An important element in effective writing in fiction is knowing when you are telling the readers your story and when you are showing it to them. There is a place in any good book for both methods, but the shown passages are always more illustrative, while the told passages are more narrative. They create two entirely different effects. Instead of telling you the difference, I will show you. Here is a short paragraph, an example of a story being told to the reader.

Bob walked over to the door. He turned the door knob, opened the door and started to walk outside. It was an icy cold winter day so he hurried back inside and put on his coat.

Now, if I’m the reader I haven’t missed anything, I know what’s happening, but the passage doesn’t draw me into Bob’s world. It doesn’t let me feel or sense much of anything. Now I’ll rewrite the same passage showing you the story.

Floor boards creaked underfoot. Step by step, across the room. The chill of cold brass felt smooth in his palm as the knob turned. A thunk nudged against the quiet as bolt released from its locked position. The squeak of old hinges cried “please oil me” to Bob as they pivoted. A final push, swing and a step. Whistling arctic wind whipped his face as shivers crept all over him.

Wow. Cold. Bob thought better of his choice of clothing. Slam!

Nippy fingers worked their way through the dark foyer closet, feeling for heavy suede.


In the second example, we see, hear and feel Bob’s world. It’s a much sexier read. In fairness, I did not try very hard to write a powerful narrative in the first passage, because I was trying to emphasize a point. There are cases, lots of them, when narrative prose is just the right thing. A fist, knife or gunfight, for instance, often demands a fast, even hectic pace and needs to be told in a hurry. It depends on the speed with which you want your story to move, but that will be the subject of another post.


Posted by Marvin D Wilson, author of: I Romanced the Stone, Owen Fiddler, and Between the Storm and the Rainbow. Marvin blogs at Free Spirit and Tie Dyed Tirades. He is an editor with All Things That Matter Press and does freelance editing.

Bookmark and Share


  1. Very good "showing" example. I felt the difference.

  2. Yes, good examples. This is a very common problem I see in the submissions I receive--even from published authors at times. Some writers try to "tell" themselves the story when writing up the first draft, and that's fine--provided they remember to go back and bring the story to life by "showing" it in 3-D.


  3. Telling instead of showing is one of the major things I see when editing, right up there with willy-nilly POV hopping.


  4. Have you ever noticed that authors switch from showing to telling when they get in a hurry. Just read a novel and you could almost tell when deadline issues started pressing on the author. Tell the readers what happens, quick, and get outta here. LOL.


  5. I'm sorry. I disagree. You've used up precious word count for something mundane. Basically, it's a character stepping out to check the weather. Who needs this to be titillating?

    It's a good example of showing versus telling but I'd rather have the TELL on this one. The SHOW, for such a passage, would have caused me to put the book down.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...