The more I read the more convinced I am that what makes a great book is all in the show and tell. Knowing when to show, when to tell can really be an art form all in itself. But how do you know?

First, let’s define the terms:

Showing is having an entire scene, complete with action, outer dialogue, and, most of the time, inner dialogue. We see what is happening in real-time as it happens.

Telling is being told what happened in a particular scene, usually in the voice and through the point of view of the protagonist. There is no dialogue or action, but if it is through the eyes of the protagonist we understand what is important to them by what they relate to the reader.

Sometimes telling can be as simple as “Susie took the freeway to John’s house knowing that there wouldn’t be much traffic at this time of day.” It could also be an entire scene:

When I went downstairs, Lloyd was there. I hadn’t seen him in ages and I just couldn’t resist giving him a big hug despite the glare from Pam. I was so happy to hear all that he’d been doing in the past year. He gave me a complete blow-by-blow which even Pam looked interested in even though she’d probably heard it all already. What a fascinating life my old school friend lived!

So, why would an author decide to tell about a scene instead of showing it? Wouldn’t showing us our heroine’s actions, hearing the dialogue, and being privy to all of the inner thoughts of the pov character provide a fuller, deeper experience?

It sure would! This is why editors are always screaming “Show, don’t tell!”

The reader wants to be a part of the experience. They want to live the story. If we are told about a scene, we don’t get to do that. It’s all second-hand information. Yes, if it’s told well, we’ll get more insight into the pov character—what they think about what’s happened, how they feel about it—but a well-written scene that is shown will give us all that information too.

So, should we never tell?

No! Telling is incredibly useful. If you want to move your characters from point A to point B, we don’t need to show every flip of their turn indicator along the way. If the scene being told isn’t very important (first ask if it needs to be in the book at all) or something which you just don’t think would be worth the words to show the whole thing, then telling what happened can be very useful.

In our example above, it’s important that the reader know that Lloyd has shown up and that the characters have caught up, but we don’t need to hear the details of his life because they’re not important to the story. We learn all we need to – he’s there and Pam isn’t happy that the heroine gave Lloyd a hug, while the heroine doesn’t care about Pam’s sensibilities, or maybe thinks she’s overreacting (although we’re not told that, it’s a jump the reader could possibly come to based on Pam and the heroine’s history).

In scenes like this where everything the reader needs to know can be relayed easily and quickly, telling is a good option. But you need to remember that when you tell the reader about something that happens in the story, you are keeping them at arm’s length. You are separating them from the story.

Now, think about how much and why you love to read. It’s to lose yourself in a story. It’s to forget you are you and become the protagonist. It’s to live someone else’s life even for a short time. It’s to experience things you, in your real life, would never get to (nor may want to) experience.

Do you really want to take that away from your reader? Do you really want to diminish the experience of reading your book? No, of course not! Not unless it’s important to do so so that you and your reader can get on to the good parts.

So, look at your writing. Take a good look at your story. Are you showing or telling? Why? Why did you choose to do one over the other?

Does your reader really need all those details you’ve relayed as you’ve shown your protagonist getting up, out of bed, and stumbling into the kitchen in search of coffee or can you just tell us that they did so? Consider what is important and the journey your reader is experiencing. Do you need to show or do you want to tell that scene?