Show not Tell … but does that mean all the time?

Any writers serious about their craft would’ve heard the saying, SHOW NOT TELL. Ignore it at your peril! 

The difference between TELLING and SHOWING is obvious when you know what to look for. Author, Shirley Jump explains it well….

Telling is abstract, passive and less involving of the reader. It slows down your pacing, takes away your action and pulls your reader out of your story. Showing, however, is active and concrete; creating mental images that brings your story — and your characters — to life. When you hear about writing that is vivid, evocative and strong, chances are there’s plenty of showing in it. Showing is interactive and encourages the reader to participate in the reading experience by drawing her own conclusions. (Show not Tell: What the heck is that anyway?)

BUT, as with all rules there are exceptions… and this is where writers can come unstuck (me for example), because there are times when you do need to TELL rather than SHOW.

In his Writer’s Yearbook 2003 article, Exception to the Rule, James Scott Bell says, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”

I recently read a detective story that wallowed in the showing of character viewpoints, sensory environment and so forth in all the wrong places – like when the murderer creeps through the dark alley closer towards his prey, and takes two pages to do it (okay, I made up that scenario, but you get the picture).

Knowing when to move your story along at a faster pace is a learned thing – and I don’t mind admitting I’m still learning after writing millions of words over the past 12 years. The experience could be likened to writing the WRITER’S COPY and then editing until you have the READER’S COPY.

Or as author (and damn, fine editor) Penni Russon said to me recently, ‘Slash and Burn, Baby! Slash and Burn!’

The tricky bit is knowing how much to cut out from a manuscript and not lose your writing style; and how much to tell and not show; or even worse, when to not EXPLAIN too much! After all, the reader doesn’t need to be told everything, he/she appreciates it when they can work it out for themselves.

I recently came across another excellent article you’ll appreciate, I’m sure. It’s called Show and Tell  written by YA author, Danyelle Leafty on Query . Check it out.

Enjoy writing! And keep SLASHING AND BURNING, BABY!


5 thoughts on “Show not Tell … but does that mean all the time?

  1. Sheryl, great post and great timing,
    I am busy with edits at the moment and your post reminded me that its all about the right balance. For anything to do with editing I think it all ends up at the altar of the balance god. We can’t always show, we can’t always foreshadow, nor can we constantly keep sentences short for tensions sake alone.
    I think when we finally learn how to balance everything without dropping a single ball, then it’ll all be perfect… lol!
    xx Tee


  2. Thank you, Dee and Angela. Funny about the knife business – must’ve been all that talk of slashing and burning! 😉 Glad to see it’s not just me facing the dilemmas of SHOW NOT TELL! Happy writing to you both.


  3. Thanks for this, Sheryl. There are definitely times when I want/need to move the story along – especially when there are word limits to work within.

    Slash and burn – hmmm, a knife accident, Sheryl? Be careful with matches now.


  4. Great post, Sheryl,

    ‘Showing’ and ‘Telling’ is definitely one of those dilemmas for writers, and you have some wise words for us.

    But you didn’t need to take Penni Russon’s ‘Slash and Burn’ so literally. Leave the knives alone lol.

    Hope your thumb makes a speedy recovery from that nasty knife:)

    Dee x


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