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  • Writer's picturetrevorcarterva .

To Show or Not to Show

Most of us writers have heard this one before: ‘Show don’t tell.’ But how many of us know what that means and how to implement it in our writing? And should we follow that rule strictly? The answer is, in my opinion, no. Showing rather than telling has its place in writing but it doesn’t mean we use it all the time.

Below is an example of a good way to show rather than tell.

Showing: Mary pulled the covers over her head, bringing her body into a fetal position. She held her breath as her father turned off her bedroom light. Her body was a rigid as a board. Her heart beat like the wings of a hummingbird in flight.

Telling: Mary was afraid of the dark.

I think it’s clear that showing works better in this scene. The reader can derive Mary's emotional state from her actions.


Showing instead of telling depends on the context of a particular scene and its pacing. If you’re writing an action scene, showing can diminish the tension you're trying to create. Below is an example of telling instead of showing in a fast-paced scene.

John took the punch to his jaw and staggered back several feet.

Seth skulked forward to deliver another blow—

John ducked and tackled Seth to the ground.


Now, if we write the same scene with an emphasis on showing rather than telling, it might go like this:

John took the punch to his jaw and staggered back several feet. He shook his head. That was a helluva punch, he thought. He could see Seth stalking forward. Still feeling dazed from the punch, John fluttered his eyes momentarily.

Seth, his brows furrowed, reared his hand back to hit John again—

John ducked and tackled Seth to the ground.

Here’s why telling instead of showing works better in that action scene. The reader is intelligent enough to know that a person who takes a punch is probably going to see little birdies flying around the head. John’s internal dialogue only manages to steal some of the tension from the scene.

The main point is to use show don’t tell when it’s necessary, not all the time. The rules of writing are flexible.

Here's a link to another article that discusses the potential problems with adhering to the show don't tell rule too rigidly. Bad Advice Boogie: Show, Don’t Tell.

Happy writing!

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