Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 33: Telling Important Scenes, Instead of Showing

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 33: Telling Important Scenes, Instead of Showing

“Show, don’t tell” is arguably one of the most important principles of writing fiction. It’s the foundation of all of dramatic storytelling. “Telling” may get the bones of a scene across. But “showing” is what brings it to life.

So it should come as no surprise that failing to showimportant scenes in your story is a major writing mistake.

The Difference Between Telling and Showing

The problem is that “show, don’t tell” can be a tricky paradigm for writers to get their heads around. What the heck does “show, don’t tell” mean anyhow?

It is confusing, largely because all of fiction is telling, to one degree or another (there’s a reason we don’t call ourselves “storyshowers”). The major difference between telling and showing is that telling is summarizing and showing is dramatizing. Consider a basic example:


Jakarta attended Mrs. Beasley’s tea party.


Jakarta knocked on the door to Mrs. Beasley’s ornate, if somewhat decrepit, Victorian.

The maid let her in and curtsied. “Right this way, Miss.”

Jakarta managed a smile and tiptoed down the musty hall and into a gorgeous sunroom. Tea for two in Wedgewood china was set on a lace-covered table.

Jakarta bit her lip. Should she stick out her pinkie when she drank?

The Basics of Showing and Telling

Right off the bat, we see that showing involves more length and more detail than telling. Showing is all about providing the reader with a full-color, meticulous representation of what’s happening. Showing lets the reader in on what the character is:

  • Seeing
  • Touching
  • Smelling
  • Tasting
  • Hearing
  • Feeling
  • Thinking
  • Doing
  • Saying

The works, baby, the works.

Eighty to ninety percent of your book will be showing, in one form or another—whether it’s of scenes in which your character is taking physical action or scenes in which his internal narrative is offering a real-time account of his inner emotions and thoughts.

That means, of course, that the rest of your book can and should contain telling. Not every scene or moment in your story will be fascinating enough or important enough to warrant full-on dramatization (unless, of course, you’re Victor Hugo). Telling is a vital tool for skipping boring, repetitious, or ancillary segments of your story.

What telling is not appropriate for is any scene that is interesting or important to your plot.

When to Show Your Scenes

How do you know when a scene is important enough to warrant full-on showing? Consider the following checklist.

  • The scene fascinates you. (If it fascinates you, it just might fascinate your readers too.)
  • The scene moves the plot forward. (If the story wouldn’t work without it, it probably deserves to be dramatized.)
  • The scene is emotional for your character. (If your character is about to experience something life-changing or thought-provoking, readers need to experience it right along with him.)

When to Tell Your Scenes

You know you may be dealing with one of your story’s necessary telling scenes if it fulfils any of the following.

  • The scene is nothing but necessary filler. (If it’s necessary to the story only to create a basic causal link—such as the character driving from his house to his workplace—then you can probably safely summarize it.)
  • The scene is repetitious. (If the scene is just a variation of “Brendan told the fish story again,” then
    sign up today!

    readers aren’t likely to need or want to re-hear every detail.)

Learning to become a great writer is largely a matter of learning how to appropriately show and tell. If you can master the art of showing, instead of telling important scenes, you’re halfway to greatness already!

Tell me your opinion: What was the last scene you show to “tell” in your story–and why?


Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 33: Telling Important Scenes, Instead of Showing

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