Show Versus Tell by Debralee Mede

I’d like to share a piece of advice that has been repeated to me and others who write.  Various teachers have admonished me to be mindful of this even in elementary school.  Publishers have also advised me to pay heed with rejection letters that reiterate the phrase:  “too much tell and not enough show.”   I shudder at the thought of hearing it again.  Clearly it must be one of the oldest rules in the writing world and one of the rules that I find difficult to grasp at times. This writer still finds frustration in reading the words: “Not enough show.”  So what exactly is the difference between these two rules of writing? And why is it so important?  At times it is difficult for me to understand and even more to describe but I’ll give it a try.

I have noticed that the missing “show” is somewhat evident in my review and rewrites especially if I am looking at it. The missing “show” piece has given me the feeling of being less involved in the material when I try to reread it with an objective eye . The story somehow deserted its genuine “story quality”, its entertainment value, and had just delivered a dump truck load of information.   In my case I felt as if I  had managed to shut the reader right out of the story which is not where I want a reader to be.

Sometimes the novel was written like it was just a beautiful work of prose without action and detail made me feel bored and uninterested and how “life-like” is that really?   There was an absence of emotion so that I didn’t feel as though i could remain faithful to the story until the end.  My strongly “tell” pieces made me feel like I was getting the story delivered by Detective Joe Friday in Dragnet: “just the facts”  When they were all tell with that beautiful prose I felt as if I had just eaten too many sweets. It becomes like I’m being overfed dessert.  When I have been successful at a kind of dramatized plot then I could see how my readers would become participants with me in the book.  The book was now alive.

Since then I have found that there are a few ways that help me to “show” more in my writing. Granted I am not a seasoned writer but these have worked for me.  The first way is through dialogue, both interior and character to character;   narration that is kept at a minimum; using props like old books; and flashback.  I also try to find ways to put my characters in situations that highlight their strengths or flaws and that make them stand out or shine.  I try to include what makes them distinctive by using strong verbs and detailed description so the character struts his stuff. The character gets to display his  unique traits; traits that really make him stand out.  So if he happens to be a greedy and unscrupulous physician then I will place him in a situation where he has opportunity and motive so that he can show just how he is predatory and unprincipled.

As a writer I am a creator who builds worlds inhabited by would-be people; I build stories where worlds and separate universes are meant to be experienced as if they were real.  My goal is to engage and entertain a diverse group of readers.  I need to create scenes that my readers can respond to and feel.  When it works I find that the pacing of the story is on target; and when it doesn’t the story is lack-luster and monotonous.  I still don’t think that I come close to doing enough “show” rather than “tell” but with my continued writing, rewriting and reading I will get it yet.  Reading is an enjoyable pastime for me ,both reading and writing them and I sure want to write great ones.  Ergo I will continue on my quest for the place where all the secrets to great writing are held.  And one day I will grasp that one somewhat elusive concept called “show versus tell”.

Debralee Mede

About Susan Hanniford Crowley

Paranormal Romance, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Author
This entry was posted in Debralee Mede, How To, romance, Show Vs Tell, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Show Versus Tell by Debralee Mede

  1. Gail Ingis says:

    Excellent parallels Debralee.

  2. Funny, I’ll be doing a blog on the same topic in about a month, Debralee! And I’ll probably steal, ah, that is, be inspired by what you’ve written! Funny how we all know that rule, and funny too how the very best authors can still forget. 🙂

  3. pj sharon says:

    Kristan, you are one of the best “showers not tellers” I know (and that is show-ers, not showers).

    Thanks, Debralee. You gave me another couple of peices to understanding this ellusive skill. I’ve gotten better, but I am a chronic teller. Not only do I tell too much but I have a terrible habit of stating the obvious–something my kids have harped on me for since they were little. I think some people naturally tell and some are better at showing. My brother, who is not a writer, can paint a picture with his words and uses metaphors in his speach in a way I only dream of being able to write. Sighhh…

    • Thanks for commenting PJ and I might add that your comment is chock-full of value. (And by the way, I agree, Kristan is one of the best at “showing” and not “telling.” )

      I think parents are chronic reiterates or re-tellers of the obvious. And that may be due to the fact that children are habitual non-listeners of parent’s cautionary counsels, shall we say. Children have an inborn hearing deficit to most things parental.

      Isn’t that is something about your brother; put a pen in his hand and maybe we’ll see another Hemingway. Sometimes though when people have to put their words in writing they stumble a little more. I liken it to situations where one has to put their “John Hancock” on a document: suddenly the person wants to be sure that they understand what it is they are endorsing with that signature.

      Being a” writer” isn’t always as easy as it might appear. As you know it takes work to be understood. It is just part of the human condition: we all want to be heard, accepted and valued for what we believe is the truth, is our truth or is another valuable truth. In my opinion, being a just a writer of beautiful words is very different from being a writer who is able to share and communicate feelings, ideas and emotions in a beautiful and concrete way to their reader. I think that desire is what makes the exceptional author work a little more diligently on something like “show vs tell”.

      PJ you work hard on your writing and I think that this is what makes it more than a dream for you: it is now your aspiration in action.

      Thanks again,


  4. Katy Lee says:

    I sat in a workshop at Nationals where the speaker talked about a scene that could have been highly suspenseful, but was shortened up and told how it ended instead of bringing the reader through it. The speaker could joke about it because it was her own writing. She then preceded to read the revised version (the one that went to print) and had the whole audience on the edge of their seat. It was amazing.

    Now I just finished reading a book, that I’m not sure how it got published, but the book was a telling story. I forced myslef to finish it, because that’s how I am, but it was tough to get through. I don’t want to be that kind of writer. And I hope I’m not.

    • It is amazing, isn’t it Katy Lee? It is so clear when an author is doing more telling. Continuing to read and focus on the work actually becomes cumbersome for the individual. Then, when there is more showing in the book, the reader just can’t put the book down The lights are turned on and the volume is turned up: he/she can’t help but be tuned-in and turned-on, to quote the era of the 60’s psychedelic generation. Suddenly you are alive in and with the characters in the scene. You as the reader are living through all the “happenings” in the story. It truly is amazing when it happens.

      I also really want to be the author in the last example. I’m sure that your desire and work are getting you there Katy. Thanks for reading the blog and for commenting.


  5. Thanks Deb, Great post. I think at some point every writter struggles with the elusive show vs. tell. Once they grab onto it, and mind you it’s like trying to catch smoke with your hands, their writing goes from good to great. Thanks.

  6. J. Gilbert says:

    Thank you. I will keep this for future reference.

  7. Casey Wyatt says:

    Thanks Deb. We’ve all heard this so many times and it’s much easier to spot telling when it’s not your own writing. And I agree, there is a place for telling – sometimes you have to move the story along – so you can get back to the “showing”.

    • Thanks Casey:

      I think that it is about balance and has a lot to do with scene and sequel. Toni Kelly recently did a blog post here that was helpful. Having all scene or show would be too much: it is probably like feeling over-stimulated. Once you’ve experienced an adrenalin rush, per se, you need a time to recuperate and recover; having one more than the other is like too much of a good thing.

      I appreciate your comment and for reading the post..

  8. You’re on the right track. The best way to get it right is to keep writing and keep reading. It’s a long, slow process, this learning business.

  9. Thanks Daniella and I totally agree. The writer’s and reader’s muscle memory need to be established and facilitated with practice, practice, and more practice. You are so right.

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Please keep coming back.


  10. Gail Ingis says:

    The sentence in the first paragraph said “Publishers have also advised me to pay heed with rejection letters that reiterate the phrase: “too much show and not enough tell.” Do you mean there are places that reject work with too much show and not enough tell?” What kind of places are those?

    The rest of your post is great to keep for reference. I work hard at showing, sometimes they are brain stretchers. Thank you, great post. I know I already said so!

  11. Debralee Mede says:

    Yes Gail. There are places that reject for at least that as one reason and at least for me. Thanks for comment I appreciate it.


  12. Debralee Mede says:

    Oops. What I meant was “Yes Gail” they have said “too much tell and not enough show” and not the reverse. The post is about telling too much and not showing enough. Sorry for the confusion this has caused you. I hope this clarifies it. Do let me know and thanks for pointing that out.


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