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."
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik pg. 192
Showing is often distinguished by its collection of vibrant details. In this scene, the main character, Miryem, is exploring a new land where she has been whisked away. Now, Novik could’ve easily dictated that Miryem look around and remark upon her surroundings.
Instead, Novik describes the settings in vivid detail so that we the readers could be with Miryem. Also, some of the words she uses present the land as gloomy, giving it a hopeless feeling. After all, there was “no moon, no stars to break the dark.”
Doesn’t that sound dispiriting!
However, Novik doesn’t outright state that Miryem is beginning to despair. She implies it through details about Miryem’s surroundings. When describing the setting, she doesn’t say, “The dark was desolate and lonely, which left Miryem feeling more disappointed.”
That would be telling! Instead, Novik writes out the scene objectively. She wrote what Miryem was seeing without commentary or analyzing her feelings.
When a writer shows instead of tells, she is in the position of giving her readers the chance to decide how they feel rather than decide for them. A reader can’t get into a story, can’t experience it, if they don’t feel something.
"The stories were obviously myths, but Sir Edward’s translation included a great many annotations, describing the realistic basis for the legends according to the best modern knowledge. Laurence suspected even these might be exaggerated slightly; Sir Edward was very clearly enthusiastic towards Oriental dragons."
"But they served their purpose admirably: the fantastic stories made Temeraire only more determined to prove his similar merit, and gave him better heart for the training."
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik pg. 210
The above is an example of Telling.
How do we know? Let’s look at the facts: this passage is essentially our character, Laurence, commenting on a book he was given, on the man who gave it to him, and what it did when he read it to his dragon, Temeraire.
Telling is used for pacing. There are going to be passages in stories that need to be told for the sake of saving time and paper. After all, it would be difficult for Novik to show every single rule of the dragon Corps and how they differed from Laurence’s time in the Navy (and trust me, there are a lot of guidelines for both).
Some things are better off explained, defined, or told. There’s nothing wrong with telling; it’s actually very helpful in world-building and general exposition (the elements that build up the plot before we get to the conflict).
When you write, show us as much as you can, but don’t be afraid to tell us things, too! The concepts go hand-in-hand! There will be times when telling is required, but be sure to bring your readers back into your story by immersing them into your world.
So, what are you waiting for, writers? Show us eager-beaver readers what you got!
Oh, and give Naomi Novik a read! She’s a gem!
About the Author: Jennifer Osuna is an avid reader who’s eager to get her hands on fantasy, science fiction, superhero fiction, and action/adventure books that leave her at the edge of her seat! When she’s not reading or writing, she’s watching Marvel movies and podcasting about them and speaking her mind about LGBTQ+ rights! She’ll read any book that brings the story to life, as long as there’s minimal romance and absolutely NO explicit content (gore and violence is just fine, however).