Show and tell vs. show or tell

Conventional writing advice states, “Show, don’t tell.” Yet such a rule is quite limiting. After all, in elementary school, when we’re asked to bring something and tell the class about it, it’s show and tell time.

Both showing and telling have important purposes in writing. When you show and when you tell is part of your narrative timing. You can fast-forward by having a couple paragraphs of summary that catches the reader up to speed, or you can linger on describing one thing and showing its importance to the narrative, or you can stop anywhere in between the showing and telling continuum.

The following passage by Joel Dane from Cry Pilot is an excellent example of showing a world. In about 170 words, Dane shows a significant amount of crucial detail to lend his setting a vivid atmosphere:

Example 1:

The connection crashes. It doesn’t matter, though: the appointment information is already on my cuff. They expect me in thirty-five minutes. That’s the first test. If you’re not willing to drop everything, the corporate military doesn’t want you.

As I slip toward the exit, my pulse thumps along with the music. A low note creeps up my spine, and then I’m in the bustling, bright corridor. Boutiques and cafés march toward the atrium with elevators servicing the highest floors of the tower. Chattering families browse the shops and rowdy kids play wall-hockey.

Late afternoon in a Freehold tower.

I grab redbean rolls at a warung and eat in the elevator. A projection on the wall shows the streets outside the tower: maintenance bots spark, adboards flicker, and mobile homes cling to the undersides of a tangle of highways. A crowd of kids chases a sweets caravan along a curving track, and a flock of new-generation sparrows dives through freight cables.

That’s all behind me now. (ebook)

Meanwhile, the following passage from Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed dives into a viewpoint character’s soapbox moment, where Nick Prasad tells his friend Johnny Chambers all his frustration:

Example 2:

“Sure,” I said. “Don’t you remember what my family came from? That we were slaves, born of slaves, shipped over from another country filled with slaves? The British gussied it up, changed the name, made us ‘colonials,’ part of their empire. Said we were part of a great undertaking: that we would change the world. Just like you. But there was no way home. Not then.”

[…]

What would my life have looked like if it had truly belonged to me? I could have had friends, even girlfriends… I could have made my own decisions, gone my own way. […] Who could I have been if I hadn’t simply been a mute, shapeless stone to sharpen the blade of her mind against, wearing away under the harder material of her genius? What could the world have been? I would never know, no one would ever know. (pp. 341–344)

Finally, in the following passage from my novella In the Watchful City, I highlight instances of showing in yellow and instances of telling in blue.

Example 3:

The Heavenly Feet inspection squads form during Chūnjú’s last year of secondary school. She is seventeen and cramming for exams when the first officer arrives on campus, dressed head to toe in imperial Skylander garb. He takes a broad-footed stance, hands behind his back, as he makes his announcement.

“By imperial decree from Tiānkyo, all girls must unbind their feet,” the officer says, sparking murmurs of dissent. “The foot is the vessel through which the Bǐyìniǎo makes their presence known. It is to be respected and left in its natural state—not modified according to earthly whims.”

Chūnjú glances sidelong at her best friend Líng. They share incredulous looks, each glancing at the other’s impeccably bound feet. Chūnjú wears leather shoes more popular in Bethana, while Líng has Tiānkyo-style slippers on.

“We will be conducting routine inspections to ensure that the edict is enforced. It is the opinion of the Tiānkyo Court that the bound foot, in addition to being a desecration of the Bǐyìniǎo’s image, is also an economic detriment to the colonies.

“Maybe we’d be better off if the Skylands didn’t take half of what we make,” Jiāng jeers from the back of the classroom, sparking nods and murmurs of assent. “Just admit you need us to make your food and clothes because you can’t make them yourself. Then maybe we’d have some respect for Tiānkyo.”

Chūnjú laughs along with her classmates. The Skylands are openly disdained in Liola, especially in Kartang, the strongest seaport, as well as the one most deeply gouged by imperial taxes. The very act of sending an officer here is an invitation for mockery.

“Why do you even care about our feet?” Miǎo says, kicking her bound feet onto her desk to whoops. The crystals on her foot wraps sparkle. “I thought you’re all about modesty. Censored too many dirty magazines up there, so you’ve got to obsess over us now?”

The official’s expression doesn’t change, but color rises to his cheeks, especially as he avoids looking at Miǎo’s feet. The taboo of leering at a woman’s foot is multiplied tenfold in the Skylands, where all feet are unbound, and the mere thought of a bound foot is forbidden.

“Just quit now,” Chūnjú says, speaking up sympathetically. “Don’t you have more to do with your life than take orders?”

Later, as the squads grow more powerful and brazen, Chūnjú often finds herself thinking back to that moment. When she’d looked closer, she’d noticed that, beneath the trappings of intimidating military gear, the officer hadn’t been much older than she was. In his early twenties, at most, looking every bit as uncertain as she’d felt. But with every passing moment, he grows away from that hesitant boy into a cruel man who’d drink unceasingly from the gourd of power. He cares only about denying others the right to be their true selves. Even if Kartang, like much of Liola, is matriarchical, he is happy to raze all that to make way for the patriarchal governance of the Skylands. As his squads levy fine after fine on her, Chūnjú’s desire to be, simply as she is, without this outsized obsession on her feet—as if that is all she is—pushes her to not only bind her feet more tightly into the golden lotuses her mother never achieved, but also to craft brass lotuses that render all production-based arguments against her being obsolete.

She will beat them at their own game.

As the passage above demonstrates, you can weave between showing and telling for narrative effect. Although the passage is only a couple hundred words long, I set up a significant amount of worldbuilding, including mentions of cultural conflict and difference, and switch between short and long time scales by blending moments of showing with moments of telling.

If you only show, you run the risk of being too wordy for your readers. If you only tell, you run the risk of your readers losing interest when there is little left for them to imagine themselves. The craft of storytelling is about mastery of when to use either mode, rather than a blanket ban on any one mode of storytelling.

Reading comprehension questions

  1. Select one of your favorite pieces of short fiction.
    1. Highlight where the author is showing, i.e., where they are including detail for the reader to interpret.
    2. Highlight where the author is telling, i.e., “info dumping” or otherwise conveying directly to the reader what is happening or what a character is feeling.
  2. Freewrite for 15 minutes.
    1. Identify where you are showing.
    2. Identify where you are telling.
    3. Consider where the pace of your piece could be tightened up with telling or loosened with showing.