Posted by: writerjames | August 21, 2010

The Great Show Versus Tell Debate

Okay, I’m back.  I’ve been terrible about putting up posts, but in the interest of kick-starting myself back into gear, I’m going to get back to it.

Show versus tell is something we all deal with, and “show don’t tell” comes up at least a few times per meeting when my writing groups get together.  The question is, is it correct?

I contend that like most things in life (including politics), the correct answer is usually somewhere in the middle.  I say that as writers, we should show and tell.  Blasphemy?  Let me explain.

When you write for the screen, you have no choice.  You have to show.  Unless you take the narration shortcut, it’s hard to tell in a movie or TV show.  When you write for the page, however, you have the ability to show and tell, and if you focus so hard on one that you disregard the other, you’re leaving a valuable tool in your toolbox.  We can show and tell, indeed it is one of our advantages in print, and we should use it.

The key, I believe, is balance.  Sometimes you need to show a reader something.  Sometimes you need to just tell them.  As you read and write, you’ll see where each one belongs, and as others critique your work and make suggestions, you can adjust.

I heard a while back about a show and tell exercise that I liked.  With two different colored highlighters, go through a chapter or two of your work.  Everything that can be shown on a screen, like in a movie, highlight one color.  Everything that cannot be shown, highlight a different color.  This will give you a good idea if you’re leaning heavily one way or the other.  If you think telling should be used sparingly, you can find out if you’re following your own advice.  If you believe more in balance, like I do, you should see an equal amount of the two colors.

In the end, I think “show don’t tell” is overrated.  I think some of the best writers show a lot, and some tell a lot.  As long as your characters and story are compelling, and the reader is enjoying the ride, is it really that big a deal at all?



  1. Good advice James. Very on target and I will try your suggestion with the highlighter. To be honest, I have no idea if I lean one way or the other and I think it will be interesting to see.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: