Style,  Writing

3 Reasons to Show Before You Tell

Showing and Telling Made Easy: episode one

‘Show, don’t tell.’

I know you’ve heard it before. It’s one of the first things a writer learns, the cardinal rule, the greatest commandment bestowed on us by the writing gods. So why have I titled this post: 3 Reasons to Show Before You Tell?

show don't tell

Because there are times when it is acceptable for a writer to tell and not show. We’ll start to explore that in the next episode of this five-part series of Showing and Telling Made Easy. For now, it’s imperative to know what it means to show and tell in fiction, and why it’s a skill every writer needs to master.

So, what does it mean to show and tell?

Telling reports specific information to the reader.

>> It was cold.

Showing subtly and indirectly reveals information to the reader.

>> The wind picked up, whipping her hair about her head. Shivering, she wrapped her thin cardigan tightly around her waist.

It was Anton Chekov who said: 

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

show don't tell

Setting, character, mood, emotions—so much can be revealed to the reader by showing.

Before we start to explore when and how to show and tell, I want to share with you the reasons we should always attempt to show before we tell. Toddlers are taught to share and take turns, but it’s a lesson that’s easy to forget. Once they learn it’s respectful to do so and that it means they’re a good friend, it’s a skill that’s easier to master. As writers, we need to understand the reasons we must show. Only then will it become as natural to us as breathing.

3 reasons to show before you tell

Reason #1: Showing engages the reader

Showing in fiction will allow the reader to experience the scene as it happens. They will be able to see, hear, and feel everything as the characters do, imagining and interpreting information for themselves. They will be able to connect to your story on an emotional level.

In this way, reading becomes an active task, one the reader is fully engaged in as opposed to being only passively involved. They’re not a passenger on the bus watching the world go by; they’re the one driving it! As the writer, you determine the final destination—but you must relinquish control to your reader. Let them find their own way!

Reason #2: Showing means the reader will invest in your story

If I tell you I heard a new band play on the weekend, that they were incredible and you should immediately buy their album, would you believe me? Would you invest in the band and purchase the album?

No—rather than take my opinions as your own, you would want to listen to the band and experience their music for yourself. You would need evidence of their worth before you invest in them.

Similarly, readers want the opportunity to judge for themselves. They want to judge your characters based on their behaviour, and they want to experience for themselves the world you’ve created. Don’t tell your readers about the band—take them to the concert! Only then will they be willing to invest in your story.

Reason #3: Showing demonstrates respect for the reader

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As writers, when we show—when we slowly reveal information that requires engagement and interpretation—we are putting our faith in the reader, trusting they will correctly deduce what we are trying to convey.

Telling, on the other hand, says to the reader: ‘I don’t think you’re intelligent enough to understand this any other way, so let me spell it out for you …’

If someone were to say this to you, how do you think you’d react? Probably the same way a reader would when an author consistently feels the need to tell them information about the story—you’d roll your eyes, curse the one offending you and perhaps throw something across the room. In the case of our reader, it would most likely be the book they’re reading.


So there you have it—your motivation to show before you tell. It’s all about the reader and their experience. So make it a magical one.

In episode two of Showing and Telling Made Easy—5 Tools that Show & Tell in Fiction, we will discuss the five tools that every fiction writer uses to craft their story, and explore when and how to show and tell.

Further reading: Australian Writers Centre | Why you need to “show, don’t tell”

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Thanks for reading,

Libby M Iriks is the commissioning editor of romance at Vulpine Press and offers freelance fiction editing services at Perfect Pear Editing and Proofreading. Libby is also an author of contemporary small-town romance where the chemistry sizzles and love is forever. Learn more about her writing at libbymiriks.com.

2 Comments

  • Kate Johnston

    I’m a freelance editor as well, and I find this is one of the most common areas that confuse writers. You provide some great tips here!

    • Libby M Iriks

      Agreed! And I believe many writers think they know how to show and not tell, yet they don’t fully understand the concept. I know this was the case with me at least. Thanks for reading, Kate!

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