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Showing & Telling

One of the first things new fiction writers must learn is the difference between ‘showing’ and ‘telling.’ And, no. This has nothing to do with kindergarten.

The kind of showing & telling I’m talking about refers to how we impart information to the reader. Granted, every book tells a story. But whether it tells it or shows it can make the difference between a reader being glued to the pages without putting it down and them tossing it aside before they even finish chapter one. Really. I’m not kidding. Fiction readers are a fickle, hard-to-please bunch, and they like to experience their fiction – not just be told a story.

‘So,’ you say, ‘how do I accomplish this?’ Well, when you break it down into a set of writer’s rules, it’s actually quite easy – although it may not look like that right away.

Here. Let me give you an example...

This is telling:

Nathan walked slowly down the hall on his way to second period. It was Mrs. Wratchwater’s history class. He knew she didn’t like him because she always called on him for answers, especially the ones she thought he didn’t know. He always felt embarrassed in that class.

This is showing:

Nathan trudged down the hall, dragging his feet and silently cursing every locker as it passed by. Five more and he’d be there. Mrs. Wratchwater’s class. The thought of her name made him cringe.

Lingering until the last possible moment before the bell, he slipped inside and dropped into an empty seat near the back of the room. He pulled out his history book, set down his backpack, and eased even lower in the chair until all he could see was the back of Bess Millerton’s hair.

He peeked out.

Mr. Wratchwater finished scribbling something on the board, then turned to take roll.

Nathan hid again and sighed. Maybe he’d just fail to answer. Nah. Then they’d call his folks and he’d be in even more trouble.


“Present.” She always made them say ‘present.’

He opened his book to the page she’d announced, and his stomach nearly dropped to the floor. Ugh. Not the Revolutionary war.

“Who can tell us about the parties and issues involved in this war?” her insistent, nasal voice called out.

He didn’t raise his hand. He didn’t even breathe.

“...Nathan, how about you?”

Great. Just great. 


Okay. That was a lame, by-the-seat-of-my-pants example, but I think you can see the difference. In the first version, I told you the issues and how Nathan felt about them. In the second, I let you experience it through Nathan’s eyes and through his feelings—not by telling you what his feelings were, but by showing you. The only downside is that I used a little more word count to do it. But, because I’ve given you a firm visual and information you can feel in your gut rather than just store in your head, this one little part will go a long way. I will be able to skip forward and not have to take you through the whole class period with Nathan and his teacher. You *get* it now, and you will remember it later, even if all I do is merely mention her name.

Are there ever times you tell? Sure. A little telling is necessary in all fiction. You simply keep it to a minimum and use it wisely.

Examples of times to tell include summarizing a leap forward in time and throwing in a few sentences when the reader must know something about a character’s backstory. (The line: She always made them say ‘present.’ is telling. But it was worked in so you'd perceive as Nathan's disgruntled musing.)

For more information, read books like Showing & Telling: How to Show & When to Tell for Powerful & Balanced Writing by Laurie Alberts.

And what about those little rules of fiction I mentioned; what exactly did I do?
For that, you’ll have to come back next week for the next stop on the You Are Here tour: ‘The Snobbish Rules of Fiction.’


  1. Here on the scavenger hunt, and exploring your blog, came across this. Nifty, not lame. Well illustrated. Nice to meet you.


    1. Thanks! Nice to meet you, too, Nilanjana. :)


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