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Showing vs telling – we’re sure it’s a phrase that the majority of you are very familiar with now, and that as a result of that, you’re probably sick of hearing (reading) about it. Well we’re sorry to disappoint… but this needs to be addressed.

We aren’t surprised that people struggle with this concept. Showing vs telling is one of the hardest things to get right in fiction. It’s all about finding that fine blend; about showing them the bulk of the happenings and transitions while learning when to use the simplicity of the tell. That’s how good writing flows.

It walks the reader through the events, helping them to build a crystal clear picture of every element in their heads. They can see the characters, the buildings, the scenery; the expressions – all because of well-executed showing.

So where does telling come into it?

Well, telling is great for those times when you need the reader to know something on the spot; in that exact moment. Telling the reader something is particularly great for chapter endings and shocking reveals.

Telling puts the information there on the table – piping hot and ready to be swallowed. Showing takes the reader into the kitchen and has them follow the preparation process – they see every element of the dish and exactly how it is cooked before they get to eat it. Finding that perfect balance for your writing style is what this game is all about.

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Can They Be Done Simultaneously?

Yes.

And no.

If you ask us, it can be pulled off, but only if there is enough distance between the show and the tell (or something else that’s discussed below). If you write one long-winded paragraph that fills the reader with elegant sentences and detailed sensory description, and follow it up with a one-liner that knocks their socks off – then yes, that’s great. That’s perfect, in fact. That’s one of the most effective ways to blend the two. You’ve probably seen this done a thousand times – especially in the crime/mystery/horror/thriller genres.

The trap people fall into is one of less subtlety.

We see a lot of very talented writers out there whose only flaw is their inability to grasp the showing vs telling concept. They try to blend the two together in a way that cannot work: too far apart; too close together in a paragraph; heck, sometimes even in the same sentence.

Now – these things aren’t always bad. In fact, they can often be very good. It just comes down to the finer details. If the thing they’re showing is different to the thing they’re telling – it can be pulled off. But if the two are the same thing – one version is shown and the other is told – then you’re in deep trouble.

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This Is Where It Can Get Ugly

If you show something, and then tell the same thing in the same (or following) sentence, you need to reconsider it. We don’t believe in set-in-stone rules, but this is something you should avoid ninety-nine percent of the time.

‘The ground swayed at his feet as he wobbled to and fro, dry-heaving a little harder with every sideways step. He felt sick.’

Take note of the example above. Can you see what we mean now? The first sentence is an excellent example of clean showing. It creates a clear picture in the reader’s mind and lets them explore the scene for themselves. Why would you ruin it by simply telling them the exact thing you’ve just shown so perfectly?

Not only does this give off a bad impression of you as a writer – you’ll seem as if you aren’t really paying attention to the picture you’re spinning – but it will leave your reading feeling undervalued and frustrated. It seems lazy when you tell something you’ve just shown. It seems as though you couldn’t be bothered to show anymore, so reverted to telling instead.

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Keep The Reader In Mind

This is writing 101.

Always consider how your words will be perceived by the reader. If you think it’s something that will pee them off, the chances are high that it will. If you think it’s something that’ll make them smile, the chances are high that it will. Whatever you think you’re creating, you probably are.

Just be conscious of your audience.

Don’t do something unnecessary (like say the same thing twice in two different ways) that will make them close your book. Be intelligent in your approach and always pay close attention to your words and how they will be read.

Your job as a writer is to dazzle the reader and leave them breathless… not show them something and then tell them about it afterwards. Let the reader live the story for themselves, in a way that stimulates their imagination and creative senses.

If you can do that, you’ll be left with a bunch of happy readers. And happy readers make for one happy writer.

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