Showing or Telling by Carolyn Wilker

A student wrote a story about a memory from her childhood when she went on a walk by herself. Fascinated by the water that flowed in the ditch alongside the road near her home, she got into mud and was stuck. She didn’t know what to do. Fortunately, her parents were not too far away and heard her call. This was a story that could include much showing. What was she thinking as she walked along in her rubber boots? Did she realize she was heading into danger? Actually the student did a pretty good job of relaying the story so we could see it.

Those are the bare bones of a potential creative nonfiction story. We may not remember all those childhood incidents in such great detail, but we can likely remember the emotions they evoked and borrow from them to build a great story.

The general themes of man against man, man against himself, and man against nature run through all stories. Plot, scene, description, and dialogue between characters are the ways that the author helps us see those people and places.

people riding horsesLet the Reader See

Readers want to see the details of a character—the red hair or piercing blue eyes, the way a character dresses—and understand something of that character’s motives, but he wants to form his own opinion about the character, if she is likable or not.

In Description and Setting, author Ron Rozelle writes, “To be a good writer, you have to be a persistent and meticulous harvester of detail.” The description needs to be real enough to engage the reader.

The writer will offer enough cues and show the reader the place an event happened, describe the characters as they appear in the story. If the story is short, the scenes and cues will be fewer, but with precise nouns and verbs.

Details That Matter

Strunk and White wrote in Elements of Style, “If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is this: the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite and concrete.”

In a mystery, the clues may be relayed in a way that keeps the reader guessing. What are the details that will keep the reader engaged in your story?

Both Telling and Showing

In novel and short story alike, the narrator has a task. If the writer were to describe every event or moving about in detail, the story would either be very long or put the reader to sleep. In Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Josip Novakovich says that a quick character summary may fill in background a reader needs to know. There would be no dialogue or dramatic action in that summary, and he suggests that sometimes the risk is worth taking.

When do you show and when do you tell? You, as the writer, will make that call. Will it advance the story to describe the action or is it in the narrator’s place to tell what happens next? Whatever the length of the story, the author needs to give enough detail to transport the reader into the scene, but let the narrator do his job too.

Carolyn WilkerCarolyn Wilker writes, edits from her southern Ontario home. Also a storyteller, she’s a member of the Baden Storyteller’s Guild.

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  1. Tracy Krauss says:

    thank you for ‘showing’ us how its done.

  2. Bobbi Junior says:

    I like that you point out there needs to be a blend of showing and telling. Sometimes we can get carried away with showing, when a little focused telling could move things forward more efficiently.

    Lately I’ve been paying close attention to how authors describe things. Some use unique metaphors that make me giggle. Some allow that a character doesn’t have to have a perfect complexion and rosebud lips, but looks like a regular person. It means finding different ways to describe, without sounding mean. I’m paying attention to those kinds of descriptors as well.

    Great food for thought!


  3. Sharon Espeseth says:

    Thanks for your reminder that we need both showing and telling. I like the quote you give by Ron Rozelle stating, “To be a good writer, you have to be a persistent and meticulous harvester of detail.” I also appreciate your test question to help us determine whether to use showing or telling: Will it advance the story to describe the action or is it in the narrator’s place to tell what happens next? Thanks for your post, Carolyn.

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