Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It

29 Jun

by Susan Dennard

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Note:

This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!

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Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

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18 Responses to “Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It”

  1. Meredith June 29, 2011 at 8:03 AM #

    Awesome post, Sooz! Show vs. tell is one of the hardest things to master when you first start writing. I know it was my biggest challenge in the beginning. For me, what helped was visualizing the scene I was writing, almost like a play. I would see a gesture, expression, mannerism, etc. and then basically just transcribe it.

    Internal monologue also helps you get deeper into showing (at least it does for me), although, yes absolutely, you have to watch out for filter words. I used to get slammed for these by my critique group. 🙂

    • Susan June 29, 2011 at 10:54 AM #

      I get slammed by the filter words too–my first drafts are DREADFUL because of them. And you’re right: visualizing is a great way to show instead of tell. I know some writers who act the scenes out! 😀

  2. Rowenna June 29, 2011 at 10:02 AM #

    Great post! I think sometimes writers (me included) get so caught up with micro-showing that we forget hat macro-showing is a great tool, too. And thanks for noting that some telling is necessary to keep a story moving! Sometimes I’ve noticed that stories bog down because the writer (or, um, me lol) was so unwilling to go ahead and tell us something 🙂

    One of my pet peeve telling moments is when I’ve been shown really well how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking–and then the writer tells me. Like…”I stared at my hands as though they were someone else’s, watching the blood seep into the lines. I couldn’t believe I had killed him.” The first line showed me that perfectly. The second line kills it! (Very bad fake example.)

    • Susan June 29, 2011 at 10:55 AM #

      Great example! And such a good point! I think you’re right that the redundant telling is…kind of offensive! But, I also notice that in my own writing, my editor will sometimes go back in and add those types of things–I guess not EVERYONE picks up on the clues ALL the time, you know?

  3. thegildedpage June 29, 2011 at 10:29 AM #

    : 3 Personally, I’m very visual, so showing has always seemed like more fun to me anyhow. I love the ‘small details’ that pull scenes together. I find that the best way TO transfer from telling to showing is to work in images; to stand in the character’s shoes (particularly in close third/first) and pick out exactly what they’d notice, rather than what you know. Because that brings you, more than just into the story, into the character’s experience, and also makes the scene fresh for you from planning it because it’s no longer your perspective.

    What I find crops up the most in my writing is that it’s hard to switch from inner dialogue (ex, “Rosaline shifted. How strange…whatever had happened to cause him to act in such a way? “Alright? I suppose?”) to action (ex, “Rosaline shifted, brows furrowed, opening her mouth twice before speaking. “Alright? I suppose?” “). Also a bad example. But you know what I mean. xD Superfluous-ity. (I blame the period, and thus more flowery, setting. Yeah. I do…) Voice comments vs. actions is a tough balance for me; you need the first to keep the second from feeling static/unemotional, but the second to keep the reader grounded in the scene. And both is so commonly overkill.

    I’ve started going over (very quickly) my chapters as I write them, and just editing for showing/telling so I can get a handle on what I do most often, and try to avoid that in later writing. : )

    @Rowenna – AHH yes, that’s my least favourite thing ever. Exactly what I mean above, in a slightly more obvious manner. D : Actions vs. Inner Dialogue. Having both is pretty much an insult to the reader and makes the story twice as long, needlessly.

    • Susan June 29, 2011 at 10:57 AM #

      Very true! Action tags with dialogue can get sooooo tricky. I find in my first drafts I always write FAR too many, and then as I revise, they get trimmed and tightened. It really boils down to a balance that works best for pacing.

  4. ChemistKen June 29, 2011 at 10:30 AM #

    Thanks again, Susan, for another post on showing vs telling — my most vexing problem. As for suggestions as to when telling is necessary, I don’t have much to offer other than the following. In the Harry Potter books, Rowling often used a “telling” sentence to give a general description of something (The room was spooky) followed by several “showing” sentences which gave more specific examples. Of course, she also did a lot of telling that didn’t follow this example, so I don’t know. Perhaps telling is more acceptable when books are MG?

    Personally, I’ve always been in favor of some telling. Much in the same way you need to vary sentence length and rhythm, I’ve always felt that you need a mix of showing and telling to keep the reader engaged. Too much telling and the story sounds flat. Too much showing and you begin sounding like a politician trying to say something in a way that doesn’t allow them be pinned down later.

    • Susan June 29, 2011 at 11:01 AM #

      Ah, HARRY POTTER is riddled with telling on a micro-scale. But, you never notice it (unless you’re reading as a writer), do you? I know I never did. I do think MG needs more telling (and if you pick up any Diana Wynne Jones, you’ll see the same thing!), but I also think that we give telling too much of a bad rap! It really can be necessary on a micro/macro scale to keep the story flowing. The problem is when the telling isn’t backed by enough showing–when you tell us a character behaves a certain way without having shown us before hand…or when you tell us a room is spooky without then showing why! Great point, Ken!

  5. Stacy Green June 29, 2011 at 10:58 AM #

    Great post on showing vs. telling. It’s amazing how a concept that sounds so easy can be such a pain. I do thing telling has its uses, especially during transitions, but it’s a trap new writers like myself fall into far too often.

    I think Meredith’s advice of visualizing like a play could be a great trick. I’m editing my first draft and noticing a chunk of filter words like ‘watched.’ That’s one big tell no-no I need to work on.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Susan June 29, 2011 at 11:02 AM #

      Visualizing is great! I like to use music and play it out in my head like a movie. For the smaller scale things, I physically get up and act it out (I’m so glad I work in a very private office!).

  6. Ladonna Watkins June 29, 2011 at 3:07 PM #

    This was a great post. Thanks for breaking it down and letting us see clearly what is needed to make a good novel. I never really thought about it when Luke found out that Vader was his father. It was a game changer in the movie.

    Thanks

    • Susan June 30, 2011 at 7:28 AM #

      Yeah, a real game changer–but no one had to tell us!! 😀

      And you’re so very welcome, Ladonna!

  7. hannahkarena June 29, 2011 at 8:06 PM #

    Love the post, thanks!

    • Susan June 30, 2011 at 7:28 AM #

      You’re welcome, Hannah! 🙂

  8. Carol Riggs July 4, 2011 at 1:04 PM #

    Great summary of Telling vs Showing!! There are often so many more subtle levels of Telling than I ever knew existed; I’m slowly learning. ;o)

    One time you have to tell (I don’t think it’s been mentioned yet) is when the reader has already experienced something with the MC, and then the MC explains the events to another character. You don’t want the dialogue repeating what the reader already knows, so you have to summarize/tell, like: She gave a quick run-down of her encounter with the five-legged beasts. Or something like that.

    • Susan July 4, 2011 at 1:28 PM #

      Ooh, wonderful example! That is most definitely a time when telling is needed–thanks!! 🙂

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