The Basics of Show Don’t Tell

Hi all; Julie here! Today’s post goes back to basics with a discussion of Show Don’t Tell. (For other approaches to this rule, you can read JJ’s piece on balancing the mix of showing and telling, Pub Crawl alum Susan Dennard’s post on using showing and telling on macro and micro levels, and Kat’s approach to when to show and when to tell.) There are few rules of craft that can be applied to a draft that will lift the level of the writing with the same effect as this simple rule. With every first draft I write, I find I fall into the lazy habit of telling, and with each revision, I look for places I can show more. Some basic rules are basics for good reason. 🙂

Let’s start with the real nitty-gritty. What does it mean to “show” or “tell” in your writing?

One simple way of thinking about it is this:

  • Writing that “shows” creates a mental image and lets the reader draw conclusions about what’s happening.
  • Writing that “tells” explains what’s happening and provides the writer’s own conclusions.

For example:

Sona was tired. She reached for a pillow to go to sleep.

This sentence does a lot of telling. If you try to picture what is happening, you might imagine what the writer had in mind, but it’s pretty vague. This example is full of conclusions made by the writer, rather than action that would allow the reader to draw conclusions.

How about this instead:

Sona yawned and rubbed her eyes. She snuggled her pillow and her eyes fell shut.

This still might not be the most exciting sentence (it’s challenging to write an exciting sentence about someone falling asleep!) but as the reader, you see the action and draw your own conclusions. You aren’t “told” what’s happening, you’re “shown” what’s happening. This makes the writing more vivid.

Some general rules for writing that will help you avoid “telling”:

  • Use specific and well chosen nouns and verbs.

Example of telling:

Dylan was the type of kid who picked up bits of things when he walked to school. Today he picked up a paper clip and put it in his pocket.

More showing:

Dylan spotted the paper clip as he shuffled up the sidewalk. Dropping his book bag, he crouched down to examine it. Nice specimen. He slid it into his pocket with the rubber band, penny, and pebble he’d collected earlier.

  • Use all five senses to engage the reader and “show” the world from the point-of-view character’s perspective and experience.

Example of telling:

Jayden tried to eat the apple his mom packed, even though he hated apples. He didn’t finish it.

More showing:

Jayden took a tiny bite of the apple. He winced. Like every apple Jayden had ever encountered, this one smelled like a tree and tasted like dirt. He bit off more with the second bite, gagged, and spit it out. The apple flipped from his hand and landed in the trash.

  • Avoid explaining character actions. Dramatize the action instead.

Example of telling:

Charlie waited for the teacher, who was still explaining the math homework to a few students. He was really bored, but there was nothing to distract him from the fact Alyssa had stopped texting.

More showing:

Charlie shifted his weight from his left foot to his right foot to his left again. Three girls blocked his view of the teacher, but he caught a few words here and there… slope of the line, the x and y axis, show your work… stuff from the homework. He looked out the window, listened to the buzz of conversation in the hallway, even untied and retied his shoes. Finally, he sneaked a quick peek at his phone. Still no new texts from Alyssa.

How do you feel about the rule of Show Don’t Tell? Do you have any tips to share for using this rule? Any other advice for creating vivid, active writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!



2 Responses to The Basics of Show Don’t Tell

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jan 27 2017 at 7:11 am #

    John Smith doing/acting/perceiving/thinking is showing, anything else is telling. I hate telling, because it means you the reader are paying attention to me the author, and I don’t even want you to notice me the author. There are times when it’s unavoidable, for instance where the character is doing something automatic or reflexive, something they wouldn’t waste mental energy paying attention to. All of your advice above boils down to one, attach as much as possible to a person, and avoid the abstract, unless you’re glossing over the routine and/or tedious doing so.

    And by the way, a line about falling asleep can be interesting under the right circumstances, viz., “Sona threw herself into bed and pressed her face against the pillow, eyes closed and searching for Morpheus behind the lids so she could steal his entire bag of sand, which, yes, is probably a mixed metaphor but that’s just because she was too damn tired to keep them sorted properly.”

  2. Alex Xela Feb 27 2018 at 9:30 pm #

    Hi Julie
    Loved the article
    Thanx a lot for the insight
    Looks like in most examples the volume of text piece that shows is larger than that which tells
    It might be sometimes a matter of style preference then, when an author wants to be either concise or copious

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