What is the difference between showing and telling?

  • When writing a story, it is best to show in parts and not to tell.  Showing is detailing actions and dialogue to describe what is happening and to make us relate to the character(s) by feeling what they feel.  It is best practice to let our characters tell us how they feel (in the form of dialogue).


  • Check this out for yourself, pick up what is deemed a well written book and start to read chapter 1 of that book.  From the information in that first paragraph or paragraphs you should be able to glean (feel) something of value about the characters or the situation which moves the story forward without being told.  This is done by just purely reading the descriptions of actions or reading the character dialogue.  A good piece of writing should be able to show you hidden details about a character without actually spelling it out (telling).  Upon reflection of the reading of the excerpt you should be able to write what you feel and sense about the character from the information shown to you (rather than being told).  Look beyond the actual writing itself and look into the meaning behind it.


  • Watch out for purple prose when writing.  It should not be included at all as it is a form of unacceptable telling:





  • To discover what telling is all about then write a short story without describing any character actions or using dialogue.  You will see that your story will just purely be made of up telling.  Now that is the difference between showing and telling.


  • Society doesn’t like to be told, it likes to discover and learn for itself what is happening and it is the same for stories.  If your story tells another reader how to judge a character then it will alienate your reader from the story.   If you are visible to the reader giving your personal opinions in your story then this is sloppy writing and is not acceptable.  It may have been regarded as acceptable once upon a time, but this style of writing is not permitted now.  So strip out the unnecessary telling from your stories, it is clunky and it stands in the reader’s way.


  • Some examples of where telling dominates are:

Source:  Patricia Highsmith (1995) ‘The Artist’ in Little tales of Misogyny, London:         Penguin

Source:  N J Darwood (1973) ‘The Dream’ in Tales from the Thousand and One  Nights, Harmondsworth: Penguin


Showing doesn’t mean that you should include all the possible detail that you can but rather the relevant detail by describing actions and using dialogue.

You should regularly look at your writing in terms of showing and telling whilst conceiving, editing and redrafting the story.  First drafts tend to be laden with telling, condensed passages and need unpacking.  But there are occasions when ‘tell don’t show’ is more appropriate. You should strike a happy balance in any one story.  It’s impossible to show intervening time passing so in this instance you just ‘tell’ significant details in small amounts to establish the passage of time.  Whilst crafting your work you should combine both showing and telling to reveal information to your reader.  As a writer you should be hoping to strike a balance between the two ways in any particular story.

If you have found this article helpful please feel free to share or comment.

Lee 🙂



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