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Show and Tell For Beginners


by Sam Knight

Show, don’t tell, they say.

And then you ask what that means, they ramble off into infinity, citing works and authors you’ve never heard of, sometimes giving their favorite examples, but they never really answer you.

Probably because they can’t show you how to do it without telling you how to do it, and they don’t want to disappear in a puff of logic. Conversely, they can’t tell you how to do it without showing you, too. The two go hand-in-hand, and like any writing rule, this one is made to be broken—if you understand it and know how, and when, to do so.

Here is a dirty little secret: in writing, everything we write is telling. The only way you don’t tell something is by omission, by leaving it out.

But no one explains that to you when they say “show, don’t tell.” Instead, they offer examples of different kinds of telling that they say is showing. And when you don’t see the difference, and ask them to explain, they say something like, “Showing allows the reader to infer what happened, but telling only tells them.” (Maybe they don’t say that last part. That’s a little nonsensical. That’s on me. Sorry.)

Let’s try an experiment. Read the following and infer what is going on:

He dropped to his knees, ripped his hands from his face and looked to the sky. Snot dripped from his nose. Tears ran in rivulets across his cheeks, flowing from his puffy, red eyes. He opened his mouth wide, straining his jaws to their limit, but no sound came out.

So? What’s going on? Did his lover die? Was he pepper-sprayed? Is he a televangelist? We don’t know. Because I didn’t tell you. But I did show you (by the general definition). So what happened? I left out (or omitted) what was really happening and forced you to infer (or guess), which you were able to do because I told you more and more little details. So, what did you infer? That he was upset and crying, maybe?

Here is what that would be like if I told you that:

He fell to his knees, crying, and silently screamed.


He cried.

What happened as I “told” you more and “showed” you less? I actually told you less. I gave you less information. A lot less. Or, if you look at it a different way, I was much more succinct.

But I didn’t omit what was happening.

When I told you he cried, you knew he cried.

But you didn’t feel it. You weren’t active and involved. It was kind of distant and sterile. Boring, maybe. Because I told you, and you knew, so you didn’t have to think about it or imagine experiencing what was going on see what it felt like to you.

In the end, you still know almost nothing more about what, overall, is happening either way. You know it is a “he” and that he is maybe “crying.” The only thing new that you know, because I told you, was that he is crying. You still don’t know why. Or who, or where, or when. It is still only that little “what.”

But! Which of those three examples did you enjoy reading more? (If you don’t say the first one, I lose.)

What I showed you was what it was like when “he cried” or whatever it is he is doing, and that allowed you (and your imagination) to identify with him, to be active in the story, to make it personal, and therefore more enjoyable.

Now obviously, I used words, so I told you, too, but that is the nature of communication: you have to tell. Here is another nature of communication: it is imperfect. A side-effect of that is that when we say “show don’t tell” we use the word “show” to mean I should give you descriptions that allow you to use your imagination.

Some people call this “inferring,” but that isn’t quite right. If you make the reader infer too much, they will get it wrong. You will fail to communicate your ideas adequately. Such as, perhaps he is not crying. With the first example, did you really know he was crying? No. You (probably) inferred it. You could be wrong. Maybe he wasn’t crying.

Maybe it was about to rain and he was desperate for water.

Let’s think about this for a moment. How much detail can I give that lets you know what really is going on without telling you? Imagine this sentence before the first example:

The cylindrical object bounced, rolling across the asphalt toward him. A white cloud began spraying out of one end, filling the air around him.

Did that show you what is happening? Or did it tell you? Both, I think. But at the same time, it wasn’t nearly as engaging as the first example. It was too much “what is this?” until the end, as your imagination tries to guess. What happens if you tell it?

The tear gas exploded.

Not very exciting, but it didn’t have to be. It was quick and over (just like the action, which is good for pacing), and now we get to experience what happens to him after.

What happens if you refuse to tell and try to show even more?

The flat-gray, metal cylinder bounced edge-to-edge three times before dropping into a roll, taking it across the gravel-covered asphalt toward the wide-eyed man. White gaseous matter appeared, filling the air, swirling in eddies and waves, rolling outward.

Did that get any better? Or is it worse? Does that make the storytelling work better? Or does the original example work better with a short, “telling” sentence in front of it?

Here’s the thing: In writing, there is a time for more detail and a time for less detail. This changes the pacing of the story, affects the focus of what the reader is paying attention to, and changes the tone, feeling, and intensity of the story.

There is a time to tell, and a time to show, and if you know the difference, your story will be better for it. If you don’t know the difference, your story may be unreadable.

One more thing showing and telling affects: gravitas, or drama.

Imagine you are just coming to the end of the greatest YA dystopian novel you’ve ever read. You love the characters—even the “bad guy” is awesome. You love the world it is set in (so cool!). You reach the last page. Holy carp! They did it. You can’t believe they did it. They nuked it. It’s all gone. The whole world. All those characters. All of them. Except the one.

The book ends with him looking out at the growing mushroom cloud and…

Carter fell to his knees.

Those are the final words of the book. It was very much telling. But does it show?

To me, it does. And it is impactful. I mean, this was all a shock. My favorite story ever, and now it’s over, really over, for reals, forever, and I am left with nothing but my thoughts and feelings. Holy carp!

What if it ended like this instead:

He dropped to his knees, ripped his hands from his face, and looked to the sky. Snot dripped from his nose. Tears ran in rivulets across his cheeks, flowing from his puffy, red eyes. He opened his mouth wide, straining his jaws to their limit, but no sound came out.

That’s showing. All his emotions are there. I know how he feels. But, do I know how he feels any better than I knew when he just fell to his knees? More importantly, how, as a reader, do I feel at the end of the book with Carter fell to his knees being the very last thing I will ever read of my favorite story, as compared to that other paragraph?

Showing and telling is part of an art called storytelling, whether verbal or written. Knowing when to show and when to tell is part of that art form. When you show, make sure you don’t omit important information. When you tell, make sure you give enough information to keep the reader engaged. It’s that easy. And that hard.

Sam Knight is the owner/publisher of Knight Writing Press ( and author of six children’s books, five short story collections, four novels, and over 75 stories, including three co-authored with Kevin J. Anderson.
Though he has written in many cool worlds, such as Planet of the Apes, Wayward Pines, and Jeff Sturgeon’s Last Cities of Earth, among his family and friends he is, and probably always will be, best known for writing Chunky Monkey Pupu.
Once upon a time, Sam was known to quote books the way some people quote movies, but now he claims having a family has made him forgetful—as a survival adaptation. To learn more, you can find him at

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