Show vs. Tell

I thought for one of my posts, since I want to have a nice mix of writing and fantasy here, I would just begin to hint around the edges of what is means to “show a story” instead of “tell a story”.

Compare these two phrases.

He gathered his men around him.


The king lifted his sword on high. “Men! Gather around me!”

One tells you what happens, the other makes it something you can clearly see. Think of it this way: only write what you could see in a movie. Think — how does an actor show his emotions in a movie?

Try this example.

He was mad.


A shade of crimson grew on his cheeks, as his jaw worked in silence. John’s brows drew down in a furious scowl.

See. Obviously he is mad in the second one, but you see it, rather than the author just telling you so. Using the word “furious” at the end to describe the scowl may be a little cheating — but this is writing — no rule is unbendable. (See, unbendable is not a word!)

So this is just a basic primer. I love examples; I hope you find mine helpful.


About jthartke

It is well known that J. T. slew several dragons in the pasture near the farm where he grew up. Many other quests, often borne from the classic books of fantasy literature, confounded his days and long nights. Those journeys sprang forth from the pages of Tolkien, Feist, Jordan, and Eddings. J. T. kept his flashlight well hidden under a tent of blankets and pillows, for fear that an ogre might see the light after bedtime. After a long dark quest through a much feared land known as "Q'orp'orate Qubicle", he was cast out to find his own way. He spent some time cooking for an insane master. J. T. then took it upon himself to create his own quest -- and thus was born The Dragonsoul Saga.
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One Response to Show vs. Tell

  1. jthartke says:

    I wanted to add one final example, as it is a classic. If you remember, Snoopy was a writer, and his cliche beginning to a story — as it is known by many folks is as follows.

    It was a dark and stormy night.

    Now that is a huge “tell”. The author is just flat out telling you that the night was (avoid that word) dark and stormy. How about this:

    Darkness wrapped around the castle, the bare light of moon and stars hidden by the thick clouds. Cold drops of rain plopped on the cobblestone courtyard, washing away the stain of dark rituals performed there.

    Sure, I did use a lot more words, but they were more fun to read, and they really created a mood, thereby setting you up for a lot more to come.

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