where the writers are
Show or Tell: How Do You Know?
Generally, showing is better because the writer uses detail ...


It's amazing how a simple conversation can spark a line of thought. That happened with friend, writer and multiple Hemingway style award-winner Jack Schmidt. He posed a writing question we all consider: Is it always better to show instead of tell?

The usual answer, that showing is better, is a point made so often it's hard to tell what that means. Here are two examples:

  • Stabler stared at the money on the desk. It was clear from his bemused expression there was some interest. [not bad]
  • Stabler gaped at the stack of twenties, then wiped his mouth. He looked at me. "What do you want me to do?" [better]

Generally, showing is better because the writer uses detail and more precise language, rendering him or her invisible and making the reader's experience more satisfying. Think of classes where the instructor used the inductive approach instead of lecturing for an hour. As in the above example, showing works best in setting scenes, creating dialogue and moving the plot along through the characters' eyes.

But one great point made in a recent post is that in writing, rules are made to be broken. Telling works well when the writer must convey a lot of information (e.g., back story) in a short amount of space. This can be done through flashback, but sometimes it's best to just say Cal Jones was in prison instead of showing him there.

Ultimately, the test question is: Which technique serves the story best at that particular point?