Showing & Telling (Why They Both Matter)

“Show, don’t tell.” It’s probably the most repeated advice a writer hears. In fact, it’s so widely spread that we, as writers, sometimes struggle to understand that telling, too, has a place in great writing. How do you tell when to show and when to tell? What is the balance? That’s today’s topic.

Reporting vs. Experiencing:

One of the major ways to tell whether you’re showing or telling is in the timing. Active, engaging scenes happen in real time (even when writing in the past tense, “she said” instead of “she says”). If your reader is experiencing the scene and watching it unfold, you’re in “show” mode. If, instead, you are reporting what happened prior to the scene, you’re “telling.” That doesn’t necessarily mean a flashback is telling, as well-written flashbacks also unfold before the reader in a “real time” fashion. But if you are describing events after the fact, regardless of it’s timeline in the actual story, you’re in “tell” mode.

Scenes vs. Narration:

Scenes are all about action and dialogue and the movement of characters through your story. They are understandably harder to write than narration. We are conditioned in our day-to-day activities to narrate, after all. But it makes for boring novels. Readers don’t want to read page after page of dry exposition, they want to see the characters in action. That’s how they come to an understanding of your character’s personality, goals, flaws, and lives.

So, you must write not to tell your audience about everything secondhand, but instead to drop them into the story so they can experience it. Rely on dialogue and actions, set it in a concrete place that has substance. Describe to engage your reader’s imagination (but not so much that it stifles the theater of their mind) and allow them to see the scenes unravel before them.


The goal is to write in such a way that your audience becomes unaware of your existence. We want them to be so involved in your characters that they forget they are reading the words altogether. And you can’t do that by telling them what happened. That can only be accomplished by engaging their emotions, and you do that by showing them.

But be careful to not cut out all of your narration. By doing so, you risk creating too uniform a read. The major bonus of narrative exposition is in it’s ability to slow things down for your reader and allow them to catch their breath. Varying the pace of your novel, you create a more expansive feel and allow what would have been a quick scene to feel more like several hours as opposed to several minutes.

Narration also allows for smoother transitions and less repetition. For novels which expand over months and years, for example, or for characters who take the same actions like run in marathons, narrative exposition can be used to create the feeling of it occurring without drafting scenes which would bore your readers. (“Days grew to weeks and to years, and the unfamiliar became familiar” as opposed to scene upon scene of the transition to familiarization, or “after the first race, they all seemed the same, in a way. Losses, or wins, it didn’t matter” as opposed to drawing out every race.)

Emotions vs. Feelings:

On a smaller scale, there can be instances of showing and telling within your scenes and narration as well. The best tip for these is to “show emotion, tell feeling.”

We want our readers to relate to our characters. The connection is built upon an understanding of our character’s emotions. But telling our audience what the character is feeling detracts from forming that connection–our readers must experience the range of emotions with them and grasp not only why they feel how they do by how. Far more powerful to show your reader the prick of pain in your character’s chest and the struggle of fighting back stinging tears than to simply say your character is sad.

However, some things we can assume our readers understand. Being tired is something we all experience relatively the same. Our arms feel leaden, or feet drag, our eyelids become weighted. And all of that description is fine, but your reader knows what it’s like to be exhausted, so tell them she’s tired and move on to how it impacts what she’s doing.

The World and Objects:

You don’t want your entire novel to be nothing but purple prose, so don’t shy away from simply telling your reader some facts so that you can move on to what’s important, but also be aware that it’s possible to show without delving into paragraphs about your subject. Create a deep world your reader can immerse themselves in.

Your character may drive an old beater. But how much more powerful is it for your reader to come to the understanding of how much of a beater it is on their own. Show them the rust that drifts in the breeze from the bottom of the door when they open it, let them see the character need to cross the wires to get the headlights to work.


Similarly, your setting should be seen and not told. Don’t tell your reader the sun is beating down, show them the hazy lines of heat above the asphalt.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” — Anton Chekhov


“Show, don’t tell” is excellent advise, but writers must strike a balance between showing and (sparingly) telling to get the most out of their writing. Show emotions and settings and write in scenes, but use telling to smooth out transitions, create a crisper and more cohesive timeline, and describe feelings.

Have questions about showing and telling? Drop us a line below, and check out our free Master Lists for Novelists to help you make your writing shine!



Exposition in Novel Writing: How to Do It Right (And How Not To)

Within any narrative, there is certain critical information that is outside of the plot which the author must delivered to the reader. This background information is necessary for the reader to gain a better understanding of the characters, plot and setting, so they can have an authentic experience with the narrative. The sharing of this information is known as exposition. Quite literally, the author is exposing unseen particulars he or she believes are essential to the story.

Why is it used?

Through proper exposition, we learn characters’ past, perspective, opinions, and general backstory. We may learn a character used to be romantically involved with another character. We may learn something simple such as the character enjoys a certain type of food, or something more juicy, such as the character used to be in prison. Regardless of what we learn through these expositional techniques, it should be relevant to the story either immediately, in the future, or it may help to further the reader’s understanding of something that has already happened. Exposition may be setting us up for something we need to know in the future or just helps us understand existing character relationships. It can also be more specific to setting, but typically deals with character development.

Third Person Exposition

A talented writer can go about this process is several ways. Commonly, we may further our understanding through the author’s third person description.

Although Eliza was born in San Diego, she never called it her hometown, since she spent most of her childhood in San Francisco.

The author just revealed some pertinent information that will help us in understanding Eliza better. Now that we know she doesn’t identify much with her  hometown, we can apply that to her interaction, thoughts, feelings, etc. throughout the story.


Exposition through Dialogue

The author may choose to share this expositional background information through dialogue. Characters can reveal a lot about themselves through their conversations with other characters. Conversations held in secret can bring a different level of knowledge to the reader.

“I wish you could’ve been with me last year when I was recovering,” he sighed to his coach.

Now we understand there is a physical and emotional struggle this character has been dealing with, which will certainly come up again as part of the story. When it does, the reader can readily connect the previously shared dialogue with the current situations. A first person monologue can also be used to let a character deliver their own information to the reader. Exposition can also come in the form of media within the story. Authors can present newspapers, letters, and television, which can go a long way in sharing critical events with the audience. By reading a headline or a letter, or hearing a news anchor deliver a headline, we can store crucial bits of data for future or past reference. In some cases, an author may use a prologue in order to introduce the requisite information, but this can inhibit the reader’s natural discovery of information and flow of the narrative. There may not be as much artistry when using a prologue to deliver the exposition.


Telling, Not Showing

It’s a popular repetition in the writing community; “show, don’t tell”. But exposition has it’s place in writing. Not everything should be told directly to your reader, although the careful use of exposition can work to counter an overabundance of showing. Regardless of the method employed by the author, the exposition should be entertaining enough that the reader’s interest does not fade, but it should not dominate the story. Exposition, by nature, lacks action, so it is important that it doesn’t drag on because while it is being delivered, the story is not progressing.

Yes, the reader requires these details to make full sense of all the situations and relationships, but it must be done properly. If an author goes on too long with this process, the reader may begin to lose interest. The author must still be working toward the climax of the story and building action. It should be kept rather concise and, ideally, be quite interesting. If the method used to deliver this exposition doesn’t maintain the reader’s interest, the information can go unnoticed or forgotten, and the story ends up with a gap in the sequence of events, along with the reader’s lack of necessary knowledge.


The author’s artistry must shine through in every aspect of the story. It’s not something that comes easily. The best authors share this information seamlessly after years of practice. Most people don’t even realize there is real thought and effort put into delivering this information to the reader, it just seems organic. We know what we need to know and that’s why we can truly appreciate a properly told story with classic exposition. Make your expositions count in subtle ways, because it should be the exception, not the rule in your writing.

How are you slipping well-crafted exposition into your stories, and what are you struggling with in getting it in? Let us know in the comments!

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