This is an old blog that I started in 2006. I keep it because it has a lot of historical data and people still come here. As of September 2016, no new updates will be made here. All new blog posts and writing/publishing related news will be posted over on my new site at

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Big Show vs Tell Debate

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

Show don't tell. 
Every writer has heard this phrase if they've been writing for any length of time. The problem is there are times when you will need to tell rather than show. This is a fact that plagues rule followers and inexperienced authors. How does one know when telling is okay, and showing is a must?

Last night as I was working on my manuscript I came to a part in my scene where it was necessary for me to tell the nature of a particular charcter through the POV and introspection of my heroine. The telling was about a secondary character, so I didn't want to spend a lot of time showing this person's nature, although I've spent some time showing it. The key ingredient was to get the point across to the reader how the heroine feels about this secondary charcter. What happens to this secondary character later will be much more important if the reader knows how the heroine feels about this person. I kept it short--down to two sentences of telling. 

Unless there is something glaringly wrong with it, I probably won't change it because I have a purpose for those particular sentences. This is where experience and confidence will play a significant role in your writing, in spite of other's suggestions. You've got to learn when something is important, have a reason for it, and stick to your decision--and when to listen to others and let something go and change it. Writing is a balancing act. You learn by trial and error. I don't think there is any other way around it.

James Scott Bell said it very well in his book, Revision & Self-Editing, in chapter 8 on Show vs Tell. His words: You can't show everything. The rule is, the more intense the moment, the more showing you do. He goes on to give some excellent writing examples and reasons why, when, and how you would use each. Bell suggests using an intensity scale of 0-10 with 0 having no intensity and 10 being over the top in intensity. When the intensity level is above a 5, show. Anything below 5 is the tell zone.

Reasons for telling:
1. Transitions in scenes that you don't want to spend a lot of time on.
2. Low intensity scenes below a 5 scale.

In my case, the scene I was working on last night was a low intense scene, and I had a specific purpose for what I'm planning to do. I didn't want to spend a lot of time showing it, because I'm using that knowledge that the reader needs to set up and prepare for a more intense scene later. However, keep in mind, that when you do use telling, be very brief. A sentence or two will be enough to take care of what you want to do. Be sure you have a good reason to tell rather than show.


Thank you. :o) I've been reading a lot (and this book is on my TBR pile) but a lot of people aren't very clear about the balance. Telling is one of my weak areas. I'm having to change from the focus of a storyteller to a writer. Most of the material I've read just focuses on spotting telling and how much better showing is. None of it helped me know how to strike that balance. Thank you for such a great post. It was very helpful.

This makes sense to me. I have struggled with wanting to put in a bit of telling in low impact scenes, but kept hearing in my head "show, don't tell!"
thanks for clearing it up.

Lee, You're welcome. I'm glad my post was helpful. I really recommend James Scott Bell's book. It goes into detail in many other areas. I only touched on one small portion.


It's amazing how certain phrases can be drilled into our heads, even to the point beyond where it is helpful.