When to show and when to tell — and give your reader autonomy

Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash

What’s the most common piece of feedback on fiction manuscripts, especially early drafts? It might be this:

Show, don’t tell.

Often writers apply telling when they should be showing. The result is that readers become bored with lack of engagement (more on engagement later).

But it also often happens that writers show when they ought to tell. In those cases, the readers face a different kind of boredom — exhaustion from the dramatization of every mundane detail.

The trick is to know when you should tell and when you should show, and how to apply either technique at the right moment, in the right way.

Below, I’ll share some ideas on showing, telling, and the importance of respecting reader autonomy — it’s what conjures magic in the mind. Ignore it at your own peril.


Fictional showing is simulated firsthand experience, or scene.

Here’s an example from a first-person narrator:

“Dana, don’t get mad, all right?” I said as a preamble. I kept Dad’s old armchair between us. “It was an accident.”

My big sister sat at the antique desk in the library, her elbows dug in on either side of a massive chemistry textbook. She looked up, red eyed, pale-faced, no doubt from pulling another all-nighter.

“What was that, Sally?” Then my words seemed to strike home, and she sat bolt upright. “What? What did you do to my car, you pig?”

“I didn’t do anything. It was an accident. Swear to God. Besides, there’s only one small scratch.”

She swept the textbook aside and shot to her feet, the chair slamming into the bookshelf behind her. Mom’s porcelain ducks rattled against each other

“You.” Pink mottled her cheeks. She jabbed a finger at me, stabbing the air. “Never. Ever. Touch my car again.”

It’s vivid. It’s dramatic. Apart from the narrator’s thoughts, most of this could have been acted out on a theater stage or on-screen in a film.

Showing roots the reader in the present dramatic moment by emphasizing actions, dialogue, character thoughts, and appearance. Even a flashback is a present, dramatic moment that the narrative allows us to look back on.

Showing reveals characters in four key ways — through their:

  • Actions
  • Dialogue
  • Thoughts
  • Appearance


In contrast, fictional telling is a simulated secondhand experience, or summary.

Here’s an example from a first-person narrator:

Here’s what happened. I told her about the scratch on her car and Dana got angry, telling me I could never again borrow her car. Right when I needed it to get to the concert.

This summary is workmanlike, and if it serves as a preamble to a scene that starts right away, its economy may be effective.

But it’s flat. Its lack of specificity risks boring the reader if there’s too much of it.

So let’s give it a bit more character.

Here’s what happened. My plan had been to borrow my big sister’s car, but while parking at the downtown CVS, I swiped another car and left an itty-bitty scratch on the passenger-side door. Dana totally freaked out and told me I couldn’t ever touch her car again, and yeah, I get it, my bad, but she knew how huge a deal it was that I got these tickets. How was I supposed to get to the concert without a ride?

Much more specific. As a result, Sally’s character emerges more clearly. It’s still summary, but now we’ve got Sally’s voice and a sense of her personality — including a hint of her refusal to take responsibility for her actions.

I provide this expanded example to underscore that telling, like showing, can use specificity to enrich a story.

Telling can be used to:

  • Increase the pace through concise summary
  • Convey information that would be distracting in a scene
  • Characterize the narrator

When to show and when to tell

Most often, showing covers more pages of a story than telling. This provides a clue to when we use showing versus telling.

It depends on how you convey information.

Telling is a summary. In a few words or sentences, the narrative can convey information that’s required to set up the next dramatic scene. As David Lodge says in The Art of Fiction, “summary has its uses: it can, for instance, accelerate the tempo of a narrative, hurrying us through events which would be uninteresting, or too interesting — therefore distracting if lingered over.”

Showing is scene. It slows down the narrative, as we see exactly what happens between the characters. A well-wrought scene leads to an outcome that, through cause and effect, logically leads to the next scene. Strung together, these scenes, like pearls, form the necklace of a story.

But often, and in especially in a first draft, there will be a scene that adds information but does not fit on the necklace. Usually this is a sign that it contains information that should be summarized — told — since removing the scene will in no way mar the overall effect of the necklace.

To illustrate this idea, let’s return to Sally’s story.

Sally’s story

This is the story about Sally and her ex-boyfriend Jed, who reluctantly go on a five-hour road trip to a concert, and transform from ex-lovers and enemies into something new.

Here’s the setup for Sally’s story:

  1. Sally has bought a ticket to a concert with her favorite band. But the music venue is in a town five hours away. She has no car. When she bought the ticket, she assumed she could use her big sister’s car.
  2. Sally scratches her sister’s car and now Dana won’t let her use it anymore.
  3. Only one other person she knows has a car that she could borrow, and that’s her ex-boyfriend, Jed, whom she’s been avoiding. She can’t miss the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see her favorite band; she’s even willing to beg Jed for help. So she calls him, and he reluctantly agrees.
  4. The morning she’s supposed to leave, Jed turns up at her house with the car he’s agreed to lend her. But he surprises her by revealing that he’s bought a ticket to the concert, too. She won’t be driving alone; they’ll be going on a five-hour road-trip together.

Sally’s decision to buy a ticket in #1 isn’t interesting. It’s a basic piece of information that sets up the story. This is excellent fodder for telling.

Sally scratching her sister’s car in #2 (and Dana’s subsequent reaction) offers potentially interesting drama, but the scene would be a distraction — after all, this isn’t a story about Sally and Dana. Again, this is excellent fodder for telling.

Sally agonizes over whether to call Jed in #3. This is tougher, because it’s a strongly characterizing moment, and could hint at Sally’s repressed feelings for her ex-boyfriend. It could also foreshadow a choice she must make between Jed and her favorite band at a time when her priorities have shifted. So it depends on the story you want to tell. However, in most cases, this information should be summarized, so we can get to the main premise of the story: the road trip with Jed.

Finally, in #4, Jed turns up and surprises Sally, complicating her situation, and setting up the central conflict. To me, this is the real inciting incident, and where we want to begin. Maybe we start with Sally on the sidewalk, eager to get going, as Jed rolls down the window of his beat-up Honda Accord. Seeing his lopsided grin, Sally recalls how she had to humble herself to ask for this fool’s help. But that’s OK, she tells herself, because soon she’ll watch Jed in the rearview mirror as she speeds off to her concert. Then he drops the bomb.

Thanks to a blend of telling and showing, the pacing will be just right. Within a few sentences, the story kicks into gear and we’re off and running.

Finally, give the reader some autonomy

Often when a story receives the feedback that a passage needs to show, not tell, the author is withholding power from the readers. The best stories balance authorial power and reader autonomy — and they do so through showing and telling in ways that engage the readers.

“No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.”

— William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style

These examples will show what I mean:

Dana was furious.

This is telling. But it’s also flat — it contains nothing to engage readers. In fact, it provides a conclusion that denies readers the opportunity to observe and draw their own conclusions.

She swept the textbook aside and shot to her feet, the chair slamming into the bookshelf behind her. Mom’s porcelain ducks rattled against each other.

“You.” Pink mottled her cheeks. She jabbed a finger at me, stabbing the air. “Never. Ever. Touch my car again.”

In this passage, there is no conclusion. Readers must make up their own minds. Though readers may agree on that conclusion — Dana is clearly furious — the point is not that the conclusion is obvious but that the readers can get there on their own.

Readers who are given the autonomy to observe the action in the story and draw their own conclusions will be more emotionally invested, and ultimately satisfied. Conversely, readers who are constantly robbed of the autonomy to observe and draw their own conclusions will become bored.

By the way, you don’t just grant reader autonomy through showing. The same principle applies to the other example of telling I provided earlier:

My plan had been to borrow my big sister’s car, but while parking at the downtown CVS, I swiped another car and left an itty-bitty scratch on the passenger-side door.

Even though this is telling, readers are invited to observe and conclude something about the narrator’s attitude — a much more interesting task than interpreting “Dana was furious,”

So, it’s not about showing being better than telling. Showing is useful when you need to dramatize. Telling is useful when you need to summarize. In either case, make sure you engage readers — it’s why they picked up your story.

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