Show Don’t Tell: If you must tell, have something to show for it

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Continuing the series on Show, Don’t Tell.

I have this awful habit of writing little narrative “character sketches” devoid of dialogue or action; simply summarizing the personalities of my heroes. I was all set to write a post about how to avoid this—with the “actions speak louder than words” approach I touched on in this post—but Wednesday morning, Mark Twain changed my mind.

I had settled in to read a little Huck Finn for twenty minutes while I ate breakfast. And there—yes, really—was a character sketch.

This naturally gave me second thoughts on the contents of this blog post. But as I kept reading, I realized my initial thoughts weren’t wrong—just a bit simplistic. Because here’s the thing: to show, you have to tell.

After all, we’re not making picture books here. All we have are words. What can you do with words besides tell? The trick is to figure out what you want to show, and then use telling to do it.

Example!

Here’s a little of what Huck, our first person narrator, says in his character sketch:

Col. Grangerfield was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it, too, although he warn’t no more quality than a mud-cat, himself…

…There warn’t no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn’t ever loud. He was as kind as he could be—you could feel that, you know, and so you had confidence. Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see, but when he straightened himself up like a liberty-pole, and the lightning began to flicker out from under his eyebrows you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards. He didn’t ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners—everybody was always good mannered where he was.

All telling. Telling in a perfectly charming way, but telling nonetheless. Note, however, that he’s not telling us anything important. This character doesn’t last more than a chapter or two. So why the time spent on him?

Because by telling about Grangerfield, Twain is showing much more:

Society of the time: Huck’s mention of “well born,” and of the opinions of his father and the Widow Douglas—characters on completely opposite ends of the personality and status spectrum—shows us something about the beliefs of the time.

Huck’s character: we learn what a kind, decent person Huck thinks Grangerfield is. We later discover the family is feuding (pointlessly, as you’d expect) with a neighbor family. When a Grangerfield girl runs away to marry a boy from the rival family, the feud escalates into a bloody battle. Rather than changing his mind about the family, Huck blames himself for their deaths, as he had unwittingly helped deliver a message between the two lovers.

So this little bit of telling about a minor character actually serves to show us a lot about our main character.

The takeaway? If you find you must “tell” something, stop and ask yourself what that telling shows. What are your words indirectly illustrating? If it shows only what it tells, rewrite.

But if by telling a little, you show a lot—you’re good!

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.

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19 Comments

  1. Ooh good trick, I’ve never thought about it this way before, but I really agree.

  2. Happy you wrote about this subject. I love character sketches. I think they also help with timing because you can continue to build pieces of a sketch to define environment and frame of reference. ~M

  3. Yeah for Twain!! With all the “How To” writing education I’ve been getting in recent weeks, from various places, I’ve almost been hamstrung by insecurity because there seems to be so many “rules”…rules I had not idea even existed! And I’ve been a rule breaker since my first grab for the cookie jar! LOL 🙂 Thank you for showing us how this works!

    • Ah, rules are made to be broken…so long as they are broken properly. Haha.

      TragicPete is supposed to be working on a post about breaking rules, but I haven’t seen anything yet. : (

      In the meantime; don’t be discouraged! Never let fear of rule-breaking stop you from writing. It’s a learning process, and most of us have to break all the rules before we learn how not to.

  4. Love this! I’d add that this kind of telling works because it’s so voicey. Your breakdown of what we learn from these paragraphs is really helpful for me, because I have a loud omniscient narrator in my WIP. And my omniscient narrator is prone to telling because I’m aiming for that old-fashioned sound. I can’t wait to get into revisions and apply this takeaway to my “telling” passages, then cut or rewrite what doesn’t show.

  5. Thanks again for sharing your insights with us. It has been a little confusing, this whole show and tell bit. Thanks for the example.

  6. Tricksy Twain. He’s a rule-breaker and no mistake, but he breaks them so well! I will have to mull this post over.

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