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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Peaslee

When to Tell, Not Show

"Show, don't tell" is one of the more famous writing mantras. There's a reason for that: it is good to know when and how to convey information without outright stating it.

But if you're new to the writing scene, it's easy to take good advice and apply it as a blanket statement, thereby turning it into bad advice.

There are times in writing when you must tell, not show.


Introductory Exposition

The first chapter of Fire by Kristin Cashore begins like so:

It did not surprise Fire that the man in the forest shot her. What surprised her was that he shot her by accident.

I can imagine some overly excited critiquer writing, "Show, not tell" in the margins of this opening. Perhaps they would suggest showing multiple instances of Fire being shot at, or perhaps they would want to see the surprised look on Fire's face, rather than be told she's surprised.

But this opening is a good hook. It grabs the reader's attention and it cuts the unnecessary information.


Quickly Conveying Information

Not every detail should be drawn out and painstakingly shown to the reader.

In Maeve Binchy's Heart and Soul, the reader is told that the protagonist Clara doesn't want anyone to know she was reluctant to accept her new job.

No one must ever know. No one would know just how much Clara Casey did not want this new job. But she had agreed to do it for a year, and do it she would.

This could have been shown through coded conversations and furtive glances, but Binchy knew what needed to be shown, and what needed to be told.

Most of the chapter focuses on Clara standing up to a power-tripping board member, an interaction that shows us that Clara is self-assured and confident. Those traits play a more important role in the broader story than Clara's reluctance at her new job (which ends up being a minor detail).


That's just a couple of examples of when to tell, not show.

But again, this is all just a guideline.

As you read and write more, you'll become more aware of when you're doing either one.

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