Don't Tell Us, Show Us!

The concept of showing and telling in writing changed my life. I remember sitting in a creative writing course in community college—my very first—when the professor brought this up. It was a tool completely foreign to me, but now it’s something I use regularly!

Showing is, simply put, dramatization. This could be expressed through dialogue, actions among characters and how they react to them, and basic description of people, places, or things through an objective lens (don’t get too personal, folks!).

On the other hand, telling is basically narrating. This includes analysis or commentary (whether through a character’s perspective or an omniscient narrator), background information, explanations, altering time or scene changes, and when thoughts or emotions of characters are specifically stated.

Still confused? That’s okay! I was there, too! I’ll provide some examples to demonstrate.

Naomi Novik is an award-winning American author of fantasy and speculative fiction. You might have heard of her novels, such as Uprooted or Deadly Education.

As an avid fantasy reader, I quickly became a fan of hers. In each of her novels, she regularly demonstrates instances of showing and telling, and the difference is clear!

(Warning: very minor spoilers ahead)

“Should we go back?” I said, making it a question, a little maliciously, to see if he could be prodded. He hesitated, and then he turned back to the deer without answering me and spoke a sharp word to them instead. We kept moving towards the dark horizon, and soon it was full night under the branches, and I could barely see the trunks along the banks. There was no moon, no stars to break the dark sky; the leaves were only a darker shadow against the charcoal-grey of it. The deer were tossing their heads, restive; they didn’t like it here, either, I could tell, and I didn’t think they cared one way or another who was in the sleigh they were pulling. The frozen river kept going on into the dark, vanishing away up ahead.

“All right, turn around,” I said finally, giving up, and Shofer turned their heads quickly, with enormous relief. But I looked back one more time as he turned the sleigh, and saw them; two people appearing upon the bank of the river, looming out of the dark: two people wrapped in heavy furs, and one of them a queen."