Are you showing or telling?

Published by on October 20, 2017
Categories: Books Character Study Editing Plots and Characters

Telling a story is not the same as showing it. Telling, or exposition, is a mere recitation of the facts. Exposition is telling.

To illustrate the difference between telling and showing, think of a trade show. You’ve got all the booths lined up and everybody is hawking something. Why do you walk by some tables with nary a glance but others catch your eye and you rush to it? Why do some displays gather a crowd and others chase them away?

Because those with the crowd invite the passerby in with something interesting they can enjoy, wrap their mind around, connect with. It could be something as simple as a pile of keychains with a product-shaped whistle attached, oversized chocolate bars wrapped in logo-imprinted foil in a giant glass jar, or flashing lights and pretty women or handsome men.

Hooked, the passerby goes straight to it and from there are presented with other facts and the sales pitch is on.

In the same way, on the page showing invites the reader to picture it in their mind and feel it.

All writers struggle with the difference. When someone points it out to you in your writing, listen. Your story will benefit.

Still having trouble with the difference? Here are two visuals that might help.



Info Dumps

Many writers use something called Info Dumps. That’s where you learn massive amounts of information within one to three paragraphs like this:

Bewildered, Main Character grew up in City/Town, State, and was born in Year to a mother who hated/loved/despised Main Character. Father was often absent/always there. The family was dysfunctional/loving/cold/warm. The town boasted industry/history that has nothing to do whatsoever with the reason the book was written but is necessary to understand the character — or at least so thinks the writer. Shocked, Main Character is this tall/short, with this color/length of hair, and looks just like Great-Great Grandpa who fought in War Mentioned Here, who was not a hero, but became a janitor whose favorite mop was this Brand.

Stunned, Main Character is sad/worried/happy/divorced and lives in a house/condo/hi-rise in a part of town that is low-rent/swanky and which domicile features this type of furniture bought for this reason and from that store that doesn’t matter in the least, with a kitchen that is modern and sleek or Fifties Craftsman or whose floor is missing tiles and the fridge is ready to quit.

Writer believes we need to know this so that we can see where alcoholic/tee-totaler and totally stunned Main Character is speechless as Main Character processes a thought that may or may not be important to the story but nonetheless gets lost in scene details and which thought is not changed or influenced by those surroundings.  

See? Telling.

I’ve seen Info Dumps on first pages and dropped throughout, willy nilly. In all cases, the action is lost, the narrative suffers, and the reader tires from digging through the exposition to find the damn story.

Another method of telling and not showing is when the writer puts adult words and thoughts into a child character’s mouth and mind. This is obviously a writer who has forgotten how children think and speak.

The British show Poldark is doing that with a nine-year-old character who speaks astute adult words about complicated matters that in no era would a child ever have much less utter to people older than himself nor be that perceptive.


Non-existent scene transitions. Clunky sentence structure which assumes the reader will naturally make the connections between disparate bits. Incomplete thoughts that. Sentences inverted so their power is given away. Commas gone wild and other punctuation that sucks the life out of a story.

Again, telling. I just did it. Boring, right?

To further numb the reader’s senses, in a spilt second spelling goes down the toilet. Yes, it’s that quick that a word can be spelled correctly. But it isn’t the correct word thereby changing meaning and taking the reader out of the story.

Worse is the tale set in a famous historical event and the writer doesn’t bother to get those event facts correct believing, wrongly, that he is quite sure he knows what happened. Reader snorts, no longer a willing participant in the suspension of disbelief.

Words are everywhere.
We writers must be their willing servants
even as we command them to do our will.

Need an editor? Of course you do. Everybody does.