How to Tell Whether it’s Being Shown or Told


How to Tell Whether it’s Being Shown or Told

As I covered in a previous post, Let the Reader Participate in the Story, whether a story is shown or told can make a big difference to the reader’s enjoyment. However, writers often have trouble knowing what mode they’re writing in. So, the post is about telling the difference between show and tell.

Shown or told?

Look at the image at the top of this post. Is the story being shown or told? Obviously what the person is saying is very vivid as the other person can picture it. So that makes it shown, right?

I would say not—one person is telling the story to another other. Shown would be relating it from the point of view (POV) of the woman watching the ship. I think this is telling because the story-teller (blue person on the left) has to infer what the protagonist is thinking and feeling. If told from the protagonist’s POV, the chances of it being shown go up.

Other examples

This is a deceptively simple concept as I think the example above indicates. I realize that not everyone might agree with my take on it and I accept that opinions can differ on the line between the two concepts. Which just shows you how complex this whole thing is. So, let’s try a couple more examples.


The town has never welcomed strangers. Dunno why. Some say it’s the prairie air. Others think that the townspeople have never gotten over that unfortunate hot air balloon invasion of 1984. But fact remains, the municipality of Dunton Heights is only good for those who were born in it.

Does it surprise you that this is that I consider this a tell passage? It is because the reader is told how to think about the town (i.e. unwelcoming). A way to show this might be a scene when a stranger moves into the town.

It should be noted that tell has its place. If this passage were unimportant information that the reader nevertheless needs to know, it’s a good use of tell. In addition, tell does not preclude the author’s voice coming across.


Ice crunched under Shana’s feet. She closed her eyes against the blowing snow and thought about how difficult everything was. If only she could banish her problems as easily as she could shake off the snowflakes.

Again, perhaps a bit of a surprise as show often uses dialogue. But not necessary. We are being shown what is physically happening around her. Tell would more likely be something like:

Shana loved winter and usually welcomed it. But her problems are not going to melt as easily as a snowfall would.

See, this is pretty tough. The rule of thumb I use: if what I wrote tells the reader what to think about the situation, it’s more likely tell (e.g. the town didn’t welcome strangers). If the writing lets the reader decide what is happening (e.g. ice crunching underfoot suggests winter), then it’s more likely show. But not always. Sorry.

Readers Participate in Your Story


Readers Participate in Your Story

In a previous post, He Shoots, He Shows!, I pointed out that readers participate in your story whether or not you want them to.

I learned this lesson from my first novel (never to see the light of day) which I circulated among friends. One reader thought the heroine Virginia was a bitch because she had a lovely husband but was messing up the nice guy she was having an affair with. Another thought the husband was a villain because his coldness forced his wife into the arms of the nice guy. Another thought the nice guy was a weakling for agreeing to the affair.

See? Same novel but completely different reactions.

Reader reaction

You can’t control how people engage with your fictional (and even non-fictional) work because readers bring themselves to the story. That is, their own world views influence how they see your work. In my example, people’s history/values around marriage, affairs, relationships, etc. are going to affect how they interpret the story.

You can’t control this nor should you try because part of the fun of reading is identifying with the stories and characters. Don’t attempt to take this away from your readers.

Having said that, I suspect that there might still be some niggle.

Participate fine. But I want my message to come across


So, there’s a good news and a bad news thing with this.

The good news is that your mastery of your craft will help get across your message, whether it is the protagonist is more sinned against than sinning or Mary really should end up with John. One of the important ways to achieve this is to show readers unfolding events rather than telling them about them. It ups the chances readers will identify with the story and hence your intent. In fact, if you get feedback that your message is not getting across, it is an opportunity to go back to the work and see how you can show more effectively.

The astute among you will immediately spot the fly in the ointment. “But,” I can hear you saying, “If I show the events, it gives them even more leeway to interpret the way they want.”

That is the bad news bit I was talking about. It is true—showing does indeed give readers more opportunity to bring their own values and perspectives to the piece. So, the remedy for getting your message across (i.e. show) also makes it easier for them to adopt an interpretation different from what you might wish.

Where do we go from here?

The answer is not to pepper the piece with a lot of stuff about how the reader should understand the story, neither in the tell part nor in the characters’ dialogue.

The answer is to accept that the ship has sailed on trying to control the message.

This is not a battle for control nor should it be. If you want to control the message, write propaganda. If you want to write fiction or memoirs, just write it and let the chips fall where they may.

He Shoots, He Shows!


He Shoots, He Shows!

‘Show’ not ‘tell’ is the mantra of writing. In a previous post, Showing Show and Tell, I’ve discussed it, but it is so central to good story telling and people seem to have so much trouble with it, I think I will do a series on the phenomenon.

Why is ‘show’ important?

Excellent question, even if I do say so myself. Let me give you examples.

Tell: He was livid and Jenny was afraid.

Show: His lips pursed and a hand came banging down on the table. Jenny shivered.

Tell: It was a great game and Andrew was pumped.

Show: Andrew threw the ball in the air and yelled, “We won! Can you believe it?”

On the surface, these might look like relatively minor and even insignificant changes. But the difference is actually quite great. In tell, as you see from the examples, the writer is almost always deciding how the reader should feel. She is, in effect, being told by the writer, trust me, this is how it was.

But when show is used, the reader sees the incident on which the writer had based his conclusion. This allows her to decide how she feels about the events.

Not a big deal in the examples above, I grant you. But what about this example?

A more important example

Tell: Anne was desperate to hide her mistake. After her boss had left for the day, she looked through his desk to find the document. But he returned just as she found it. Quickly, she decided she had to distract him.

Show: “Good night, Anne.”

“Good night, Brad.” Anne watched Brad get on the elevator before she jumped up and headed into his office.

She pulled open the top drawer. There it was. She picked it up.

“What are you doing?” Brad!

She closed the drawer and said slowly, “What do you think I’m doing?”

Okay, is she just stalling for time or is she coming on to him? Presumably, the text following will answer the question but the show example is more compelling because you have put the reader in the situation itself. And even allowed her to engage with the story by wondering what Anne is going to do.

Shows take more effort and thinking

Generally, it is true that showing takes more effort and thinking. You have to go from the easy he was pissed to the more difficult consideration of what someone does or says in that state. How does he look? Does he bang the table or does he hiss his words? Are his eyes blazing or cold?

The added benefit to this approach is you give the reader more on the character. An eyes blazing, table-banging pissed or a hissing, cold pissed, implies two different types.

The good news is that you don’t need to do this with every character, every scene. There will be minor characters who don’t merit big show scenes or events which are not critical to the plot which nevertheless must be covered. These might be good candidates for tell.

I suspect that there may be some discomfort when considering these suggestions, the top one being, “But I want readers to see the story as I intend. I don’t want it to be open to interpretation.”

Unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Readers always put their own spin on the reading—which is part of the fun of it. But I suspect that this is not so easily dispensed with so I will do another post, Readers Participate in Your Story.