What Does “Show, Don’t Tell” Mean in Writing?

16 Feb 2021

WHAT DOES “SHOW, DON’T TELL” MEAN IN WRITING?

You’ve written a piece you adore. The language flows, and it’s wonderfully descriptive. Your editor (or teacher) then comes back with, “Show me, don’t tell me!” 

Seriously? You’ve heard that same critique a thousand times. Don’t worry. All writers have found those dreaded words on their drafts. What are they looking for?

Let’s get to the bottom of this and figure out what “show, don’t tell” really means in writing once and for all. 

Defining Telling Vs. Showing

“Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation and that feeling will awaken in them.”– Natalie Goldberg in “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within”

The gist of the “show, don’t tell” philosophy is to immerse your reader in the story rather than describe the story to them. While you may think you’ve written some beautifully descriptive prose, it is still you reporting the scene to your reader.

Instead, you want to show what the character is experiencing by embracing the senses and body language.

Consider these examples:

Telling: “Daren was nervous while taking the written exam. His constant fidgeting disturbed all of the other students.”

Showing: “Daren gnawed on the thumbnail of his left hand while his right hand drummed his pencil on his desk. Suddenly, he could feel the narrowed eyes of 19 other students all locked on him.”

Telling: “Monica looked in the mirror once she had the new dress on. She loved it! It made her feel like dancing.”

Showing: “When Monica looked in the mirror, her eyes twinkled, and she couldn’t help but to twirl and step to an imaginary tune and watch the dress flair out like a flower in the wind.”

The key is to not tell the reader that your character is nervous or happy, show your reader how your character displays those emotions.

The “show, don’t tell” idea isn’t limited to your characters, either. Even your descriptions of settings and exposition benefit greatly by following this advice.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” —Anton Chekhov

Indicators to Watch for and Tips for Fixing Them

While there is no fool-proof method for nailing down showing vs. telling entirely, since it can be a bit subjective, there are some red flags you can watch for as you edit your writing.

Here are some of the indicators that you’re telling and need to bring the reader in more.

Naming an emotion

Anytime you see an emotion named in your writing, you’re telling. He loved that girl. She was overcome with guilt. Judy was furious with her sister.

Don’t tell us he loved her, show us how he eats key lime pie—even though he prefers apple—just because key lime is her favorite. You get the picture.

“Good writers may “tell” about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings.” —John Gardner

Boring Verbs

Using a boring verb with the help of an adverb (She walked quietly to the edge of the window and looked in.) is telling. A strong verb (She slunk to the window, peeking just over the sill.) is showing.

Scan your writing for adverbs and dull verbs and replace them with fun, exciting verbs that convey your message better. A boring verb with an adverb is like adding garnish to a dull entrée.

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King

Adjectives

Adjectives describe or modify a noun. Thus, by their very definition they are reporters. “The morning air was cold, and the sunrises shone bright.” Yawn! How about, “The morning air tickled her nostrils with a chill and the crimson and yellow sunrise made her squint.”

“Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description.” — C.S. Lewis

Wordiness

Frequently, you can achieve a better effect with fewer words. One great verb is better than a dull one with an adverb attached.

If you find your sentences getting a little long, consider where you could tighten things up by adding more sensory details.

Pro Tips and Tricks

Image by wiredsmartio from Pixabay

Learning how to consistently show instead of telling isn’t easy and won’t happen like flipping a switch. It takes practice.

While you are writing your first draft, you don’t need to concern yourself with it. Let that draft flow. The real work comes in the editing.

Here are a few tips and tricks for spotting opportunities to show instead of tell.

Think Small

Anytime you find yourself writing about something big, whether it’s the panoramic view of a mountain range or a concept like love or freedom, narrow your focus.

Finding something small to zero in on as a representative of the whole can give perspective and make it much more memorable. Give specific sensory details whenever possible.

“Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.” — Ernest Hemingway

Let Dialogue Work for You

How many times have you heard someone say something that told you a lot more than the words actually said?

Word choices, a tone of voice, or even words left unsaid can show you more than a paragraph of exposition. Who doesn’t remember this scene in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”?

Princess Leia: “I love you!”

Han Solo: “I know.”

If you knew nothing else about Han Solo at that point in the saga, you now know without a doubt that he’s no starry-eyed kid. He’s a bit of a rogue (and we love him for it!).

Get Moving

When you want to set a scene, the simple choice is to describe it as your character or narrator sees it. But it’s more dynamic to show the scene as action happens.

“Billy sat next to his dad at the overcrowded ballpark. Though the game was exciting, he felt suffocated and overwhelmed.”

Or

“Billy clutched his giant foam finger tightly as the pitcher unleashed a fastball. With a crack of the bat the crowd jumped to its feet and Billy was knocked into his dad by the men next to and behind him. He clutched the foam finger tighter as the smells of stale beer and body odor choked him.”

Conclusion

Now that we’ve figured out the difference and how to get it right, why does showing vs. telling matter?

  • It’s more interesting. Think of a radio sports announcer. The great ones don’t tell you what’s happening; they paint a picture with words so you can see the action. It’s much more interesting.
  • It evokes emotion. We are emotional creatures. Even if your writing is ad copy, always reach for emotion. It’s more memorable and more fun.
  • Showing builds interest and suspense. Telling is reporting. The reader doesn’t get to fill in the blanks themself.
  • It pulls the reader into the story. You don’t want your reader to simply read your story, you want them to live it. You want to draw them in to feel like they are there right beside your protagonist smelling the same smells and feeling those same emotions.

Now it’s time to put it to the test. Challenge yourself!

Dive into one piece of your writing and go through the first page or first chapter and look for those indicators like weak verbs or named emotions.  Do your best to cut out places where you are telling and create vivid writing that shows instead.

Now, bask in the glow of your new and improved writing. Great job!

Author
Tyler Omoth 
Tyler grew up knowing he wanted to be a writer. In 2005 he landed his first professional writing role as a radio advertising copywriter. Since then he has penned over 70 books for children as well as blog posts, white papers, press releases, greeting cards and articles. He's even managed to get a few short stories and poems published. He's written for just about every kind of business out there and loves the challenge of finding the right voice to fit each client, even if it means matching their existing voice. He believes that the best writing strikes an emotional chord, even if it's just a 30-second advertisement. He is Hubspot certified for content marketing and knows how to create content that is SEO friendly. A Minnesota transplant living in Tampa, FL, when he's not writing Tyler is probably watching baseball or embracing the chaos of life with his wife, Mary, and twin toddlers, Gavin and Rachel.



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