Storytelling: Show vs. Tell

One of the most common pieces of writing advice that gets thrown around is “show, don’t tell” but there are countless variations of pushback against this (things like “show emotion, tell feeling”), and just as many authors who live by this rule steadfastly. So what does it mean? Why are the opinions so divided? Here’s my take on it: “show the visceral, tell the cerebral.” Let’s dive into what that means.

What’s the difference between visceral and cerebral?

The literary definition of visceral is:

“Visceral feelings are feelings that you feel very deeply and find it difficult to control or ignore, and that are not the result of thought.”

Collins Dictionary

From the same source, the definition of cerebral is:

“If you describe someone or something as cerebral, you mean that they are intellectual rather than emotional.”

Collins Dictionary

So a very abbreviated version, according to my interpretation of these definitions, would be as follows:

  • Visceral is emotion without thought.
  • Cerebral is thought without emotion.

I go over the concepts of suspense and terror as cerebral vs. visceral respectively (with horror as a mixture of both) in this post, but here are some other examples:

  • Visceral: vertigo, adrenaline, hot flashes, sweating
  • Cerebral: visual processing, logical problem-solving, rationalization

“Rationalization” is probably the best way to tell the two apart, because visceral reactions are involuntary and figuring out the source of the reaction comes afterwards. If your character is distracted and realizes that they’re sweating a lot, there’s a pause between “I’m sweating” and the question “why am I sweating?” The former is visceral, the latter is cerebral.

Applying this to writing: Visceral

A characteristic of good storytelling is the ability to forge a connection between your characters and your readers. By showing visceral reactions, you establish a visual for your readers and let them experience it alongside your characters. The best way to describe a character experiencing something visceral, e.g. vertigo, is to walk your reader through those feelings that happen before thought. For vertigo, you might want to describe:

  • wobbly legs
  • shaking
  • nausea
  • blurry vision
  • freezing/trying to be very still
  • etc.

Doing this paints a picture for your reader using the five senses, and really emphasizes how vertigo is affecting your character. It packs a punch that will help your reader visualize the scene in more detail than simply saying, “The steep drop caused vertigo.”

Applying this to writing: Cerebral

Back to being able to relate to your characters, sometimes you need to tell them what’s happening in order for them to follow along and forge that connection with your character. This especially applies to internal dialogue, where characters often consider their actions and try to make sense of them or put steps in a chronological sequence. In order for your readers to make those logical leaps with your character, you need to tell them the basis of the logic to make it make sense.

I’m sure you’ve experienced cerebral internal dialogue yourself, where emotion is lifted from an experience so that you can work through it logically. Ironically, this can often happen under extreme stress, where the brain shuts down emotion in order to navigate to safety. Let’s add a character to the vertigo example in the last section.

Say that your POV character is out with a friend, and that friend suddenly experiences intense vertigo and staggers, looking like they’re about to fall. In order to reach their friend in time, there needs to be a cerebral overtake where action happens before any paralyzing emotion. If your character is trained in medicine, it could become very procedural, where they help their friend sit down gently and try to figure out where the vertigo came from or if it’s passing/getting worse. In this case, your readers will best connect with your character by you telling them the thought process behind the actions in a detached way.

Doing this is also good storytelling, because your readers are learning about your characters while following the plot, becoming further immersed into the story where they can achieve the coveted suspension of disbelief.

There are, of course, exceptions

I think this is why there’s such a divide surrounding the “show, don’t tell” writing advice. Whether you’re approaching a scene from a visceral or cerebral standpoint, it all communicates information about your characters. Sometimes you have to use elements of both in order to fully establish a narrative. Let’s visit the vertigo example one more time.

Starting back at the beginning, your POV character is out with a friend, and then their friend experiences an intense bout of vertigo. They stagger and are about to fall, but instead of shutting off emotion in order to quickly process the situation… your POV character freezes out of fear. They don’t make it to their friend in time, and their panic has so thoroughly rooted them to the spot that they can’t get closer to know whether their friend is okay. This is when you would need a combination of visceral and cerebral storytelling. You can’t only say that your POV character experienced a huge rush of adrenaline and didn’t move, because that leaves readers with only half of the story. You have to add in the thoughts that go along with the emotion in order for the panic to be believable. So write about the visceral panic, the inability to move, the heart racing and sweating and shaking – but also write about the anxiety, the worry, the racing thoughts and futile attempts at willing their body out of being frozen from fear. Let your readers know that your POV character desperately wants to help their friend.

By combining the two storytelling types of “show” and “tell” in this case, readers learn more about your POV character than they would have by using only one or the other.

In conclusion

The end goal of storytelling is always to forge a connection with your reader/viewer/audience. They need believable characters that they can understand in order to join them on the journey through your plot, and the best way to do that is to tailor your writing to each unique experience. I don’t think “show” vs. “tell” can ever be as simple as always choosing one over the other, because it’s so much more complex than that. So my advice is to always keep your reader in mind and figure out what they need to learn from each scene. Purposeful writing is the key to solid storytelling, so that’s my two cents on the big debate: show the visceral, tell the cerebral.

What do you think? Where do you land on show vs. tell as an author? Do you prefer writing one over the other? Or do you like writing a mix, like me? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!


2 thoughts on “Storytelling: Show vs. Tell

  1. I actually like the idea of both – showing the visceral and telling the cerebral. I think it’s harder for a cerebral reader to pick up on the visceral clues as to what’s going on, yet “showing” over “telling” keeps the reader in the story nicely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great point that some readers are themselves visceral vs. cerebral, I hadn’t thought of that! I think the best practice is to mix writing styles to make sure readers can relate to the content no matter what kind of reader they are. Thank you for your comment! 🙂


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