Show and Tell


Fiction writers often hear show, don’t tell.

But I advise my clients to show and tell.

What does it mean to show or tell? When should you show and when should you tell?

You show in an action scene, like in a movie:

  • An action scene takes place in real time.
  • It takes place in a specific setting with specific characters.
  • There is action—characters are talking or moving; something happens.
  • Major action scenes involves conflict between two opposing forces; minor action scenes show character or give information important to the story.
  • Action scenes involve the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.

You tell in narrative summary:

  • Narrative telescopes time and events when nothing interesting or important happens.
  • It can summarize repetitive action to give impact to one event (such as series of races).
  • Narrative may include interior monologue.

Should you show or tell?

  • You need to use both narrative summary and action scenes to vary the rhythm of the story. Too much action maintains such a high pace it exhausts the readers and doesn’t give them time to reflect. Too much narrative bores the reader and doesn’t give them the sense of what is important and what isn’t.
  • Use narrative summary for events that are less important or interesting and for transitions.
  • Use action scenes for major events.
  • Like a child making a scene with a temper tantrum, make a scene (action) when you want to get your readers’ attention.

When I tell clients they are doing too much telling and not enough showing, they ask me how to change from telling to showing.

Let me give you an example. Before is all narrative summary.

Eleanor got into the car and put her packages onto the front seat.  She was glad to be finished at the mall.  She didn’t like crowds, but she had to buy Christmas presents for her family.  She drove out of the parking lot and onto the street.  When she was stopped at the traffic light, she heard a man’s voice from behind her seat.  He told he had a gun and if she did what he said, she wouldn’t be hurt.  He told her to turn right at the next intersection. 

After is an action scene.

Eleanor  juggled an armload of packages as she opened the car door. She tossed the bags to the far side of the car, breathing a sigh of relief that she’d passed up the glass figurine she’d considered for Sue. The blouse she’d ended up choosing was as unbreakable as the stuffed toys for her nieces and nephews.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Man, I hate crowds. When will I learn to get my Christmas shopping done early? If I could stand the disappointed looks on the kids’ faces, I wouldn’t even bother.

Vowing to take something for her headache and go straight to bed the minute she got door, Eleanor started the car and drove out of the parking lot. At the intersection of Bayles and Crockett, she stopped for a red light, massaging her temples as she waited for the light to change.

“Just do what I say. I’ve got a gun.”

 Eleanor jerked her head up at the sound of a man’s voice coming from the back seat. Her hands trembled on the steering wheel as she told herself she’d fallen asleep and was in the middle of the nightmare. She started to look behind her.

“Don’t look at me! If you just do as you’re told, I won’t hurt you. But if you don’t …”

What he didn’t say frightened her more than what he did say. “Please don’t hurt me. I’ll do whatever you say.” Her voice quavered and tears threatened.

“The light’s green. Drive to the next intersection and turn right. And no funny business. Understand?”

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