Show vs. Tell

Telling-vs.-ShowingGuest post by Peter Langella

Versus is key.

Most writing books and classes and critiques and seminars will say “show don’t tell,” but I think we can all agree that showing isn’t always possible or appropriate. Some things can be told, and that’s okay. The only stories that are realistically going to show the reader everything are ones told in first person present tense with a limited timeline. Everything else needs to be written in a combination of showing and telling, just not both at the same time, or one immediately after the other.

That’s where versus comes in. Show something or tell something; don’t do both.

Sounds often trigger my thought process. Both music and the spoken word. Even sound effects sometimes. They often help me better understand something I’ve been thinking about. So it came as no surprise that I had a revelation about this topic while I was driving in my car listening to the morning news. I found that the most engaging news – and news reporters – balanced their lead-ins and sound bites with an awesome clarity and precision, while reports I found less interesting were telling me the same things twice, the equivalent of a writer showing and telling the same piece of information.

I’m going to try to come up with a couple of examples to illustrate what I mean.

Host: Stock markets were up this morning in Hong Kong as Nike and Samsung both made large gains. Joe Smith has more…

Smith: Nike and Samsung each made a splash with new products this week, allowing them to secure large gains in the HKEx index…

The host and feature reporter both said the exact same thing. They just switched the words around a bit. That’s an obvious example, but it’s what I often hear on the radio, and it’s what showing and telling sounds like on the radio.

As opposed to this:

Host: Stock markets were up this morning in Hong Kong as Nike and Samsung both made large gains. Joe Smith has more…

Smith: New products for Nike, like the Lebron Air 9 basketball shoe, got a boost before they even hit the stores this morning in New York. A similar response at Manhattan’s Nike Town flagship store could mean a record quarter for the Oregon-based sporting giant…

Smith now gives details and more information. In this second example, the story is getting moved forward, not laterally. If you’re a radio news listener, pay attention to your favorite reporters. I bet they rarely show and tell. It’s one or the other, always moving forward.

When revising, it’s our job to find these instances of show and tell and ask ourselves which one needs to stay. Show vs. tell. Which one fits the scene or situation?

851629-stench-bad-smellI’ll try a narrative example.

Jeff walked into the hall. The stench was awful. It filled his nostrils with a musky mix of molasses and Pepto-Bismol. It was sickening. His stomach felt nauseated.

That’s showing and telling. Telling the reader it’s awful and sickening, and then giving them details doesn’t work nearly as well as this:

Jeff walked into the hall. The stench stung his nostrils with a musky mix or molasses and Pepto-Bismol. His stomach gurgled and gagged in a nauseated mess.

Or this:

Jeff walked into the hall. The stench was so awful he nearly threw up.

Both examples work. One is shown, the other told, but they each work in their own way, depending on what scene they’re part of. They most definitely work better than the show and tell passages. Those passages don’t let the reader do anything. By showing and telling, we take all of the fun away from the reader. If we say something is simply awful, we need to allow the reader to decide what awful swells like. If we show them something’s awful, we don’t need to tell them it’s awful because they’ll already know.

Use showing to add power, emotion, and resonance to scenes. Use telling to get readers through necessary time jumps and story-leaps. Try to use both effectively and in balance with one another.

Versus not and.

Show vs. Tell.

Peter LangellaPeter Patrick Langella holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and writes in Vermont and thinks elevenses should be recognized by his employer.

Other posts by Peter:

Musicality and Reader Emotions

Guest Post by Peter Langella

brain-musicWhen I first began writing seriously, I was just telling stories. I wasn’t thinking about plot or structure or the concrete and abstract desires of my characters. Sure, a lot of that found its way into my drafts, but it wasn’t my focus when I brainstormed or sat at the keyboard.

That all changed when I become a writing student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My faculty mentors and talented classmates made me question my intentions in every scene. Were my characters learning, failing, growing, or changing? Was my plot moving forward? Was I creating an emotional arc for my characters that future readers could connect with?

Because of questions like these (among the many other things I learned), I grew exponentially as a writer during my MFA experience. I’m now gaining confidence with my writing voice, and my drafting toolbox is larger and much more accessible.

However, the question I struggle with on a daily basis is the one about character emotions and reader connection. This literally keeps me up at night. Many, many nights. I used to think that I didn’t need to worry about a potential reader. Just be true to your characters, I’d tell myself. Write the story that needs to be written, I’d hear my past professors saying.

Just write the truth, for goodness sake!

the-great-gatsby-movie-posterThen I watched Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. I was blown away, specifically by his use of modern music in the 1920’s setting. By choosing a soundtrack that features Jay-Z, Jack White, Beyoncé, Florence & the Machine, and many other contemporary artists, Luhrmann isn’t only telling the characters’ stories, he is speaking directly to the audience.

Now, I’m fully aware that Luhrmann’s music choices made most critics cringe, but I think it was extremely innovative, and similar choices can certainly be used by writers to make our books more relatable.

Seriously. I’m not crazy.

For example, during the first huge party that narrator Nick Carraway attends at Gatsby’s mansion, Luhrmann chooses to blare techno behind the visuals with vocals by Fergie and just a tiny hint of horns from the 1920’s. It’s jarring for the viewer, but it works because the character and viewer are experiencing the exact same thing. Nick Carraway has never heard music like this before, and he’s never been to a party so lavish. He’s completely out of his comfort zone. Viewers feel the same way. Most of us have never been to a party like that, either, and we’ve definitely never heard music like that paired with the visuals on the screen. We’re completely out of our comfort zone, too. If Luhrmann simply chose a jazz number new to Long Island that summer, Carraway would probably be feeling the same. He would still be blown away by the newness of the situation. But we wouldn’t be. We’d be thinking about the nice period piece we’re watching with timeless jazz music authentic to the era. We wouldn’t be feeling the exact same thing as the character, and the scene would be much less effective for that reason.


That’s what keeps me up at night. How can I – without the sounds and visuals that Luhrmann has at his disposal – create that exact connection?

Or, at least, how can I get it close?

In my current work-in-progress, one of my main characters is the son of a presidential candidate. Obviously, most people don’t know what it feels like to go through that. Neither do I. But many people know what it feels like to have a detached parent or someone at school who doesn’t like you as much as you like them or a friend who can’t talk for more than two minutes without making reference to some book or movie or TV show they watched recently.

The musicality, so to speak, is what happens in the background. It’s what the story is about, even though a hundred people could outline the plot and not mention these smaller items. These items that (hopefully) create an intense bond between the characters and a potential reader.

Looking for AlaskaWhen I read Looking for Alaska, I was blown away by the scenes where Pudge and The Captain hang out in their dorm room. Maybe it’s because I went to boarding school, so I could understand and appreciate the rhythm of the monotony. But maybe it was because that’s where the characters figured out who they were. When I think about that book, I don’t think about Alaska Young or any other characters or anything any of the other characters did. I only think about those quiet scenes where nothing and everything happened for me all at the same time.

So, whether you’re famous like Baz Luhrmann or John Green, or you’re just someone trying to write their heart out like me, take another look at your draft and ask yourself if there’s any room for musicality in it. Ask yourself if there’s a way for your characters to connect with readers on a profound level, even if it happens in a small or weird way that might not seem to have anything to do with your story. It could be a scene from the roaring 20’s with techno music or a chapter where two friends sit around talking about nothing, but it will probably be something brilliant that only you and your characters can team up to create.

Trust me, when you’re up at night thinking about it, I’ll be up thinking about my stuff, too.

Peter LangellaPeter Patrick Langella holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and writes in Vermont and thinks elevenses should be recognized by his employer.

Other posts by Peter: