December 9th, 2019

Show, Don’t Tell: The 3 Most Misunderstood Words in a Writer’s Vocabulary

Lori Freeland

“Show, don’t tell” might be the three most misunderstood words in a writer’s vocabulary.

Show, Don't Tell

But—

  • Why is showing so important?
  • Is it always bad to tell?
  • How the heck do you even know if you’re doing it right?
  • And just what is the difference between them?

Start with a Definition

TELLING is:
Summarizing for the reader.

Reporting information.

SHOWING is:
Letting the reader draw her own conclusions.
Using action, thoughts, senses, and feelings to allow the reader to experience the story for herself.

Now let’s take this abstract idea and make it concrete.

TELLING is writing:
He was short.                                                    

SHOWING is writing:
A visual of him getting on a stool to reach the top cabinet.

You don’t even have to use the word “short.” In fact, it’s better if you don’t.

“Don’t tell us the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” (Mark Twain)

“Don’t tell me the morning is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Anton Chekov)

“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” (E.I. Doctorow)

A word “picture” is worth a thousand word “statements.”

Examples: Delete This / Write This

He was bleeding. / Dark liquid dripped from his side.

It was snowing. / Fluffy white flakes covered the ground.

Mary loves chocolate. / Mary popped the last piece of Belgian chocolate into her mouth and closed her eyes.

Bailey was happy to see Brad. / Bailey sprinted through the crowd, flung her arms around Brad, and buried her face in his chest.

Writers, we can’t SEE the story you’ve created in your head if you don’t PUT it on the page. We can’t read your minds. RIDICULOUS, right? I mean, it would be so much easier if we could.

Active versus Passive Writing

SHOWING is ACTIVE. TELLING is PASSIVE. That’s true. Sometimes telling is lazy writing. But sometimes it’s not. You can’t “show” everything. Painting a word picture in every paragraph turns your novel into a tome.

When is it okay to tell?

  • when you need faster pacing
  • to show a minimal moment
  • as a way to move your story forward
  • if you don’t want your book to finish at 350,000 words

When should you show?

  • when you want to evoke emotion in your reader
  • during a crucial moment or traumatic event
  • to point out a turning point in the story
  • if you want to show a change in relationships or circumstances
  • to highlight important information or a big decision

If something is supposed to be a BIG DEAL for your reader, it needs to be a BIG DEAL to your character, and readers needs to “see” it for themselves.

Think of it this way. In a news report, you hear the reporter say there’s been a devastating hurricane in Florida, but it’s the images of the destruction on the screen that really get you. 

Want your readers to feel emotion? Make them feel like they’re actually there.

Be Prepared

It helps if you have a plan. Write a brief summary of what needs to happen in the scene and mark what’s important—then make a point to SHOW anything you’ve marked.

Keep It Real

If your character was a real person, how would she respond? SHOW that.

Example: If a man comes home and finds his wife dead, he isn’t going to shower and have dinner like nothing happened. Unless ... he hired someone to kill her and he’s planning to admire the handiwork before he disposes of the body.

If you want to bring your characters to life, treat them like real people.

I Could Write This:

Smiling, Alek moved in to put his arm around me.

I backed out of reach.

He frowned.

So did I. I didn’t want to be jumpy around him, but I couldn’t help it.

Or I Could Write This:

Alek’s smirk went southern gentleman, and he moved close to put his arm around me.

A chill broke over my skin. I backed out of reach, and his grin dropped quicker than his arms. But my newly acquired auto flinch didn’t seem to care. It overrode every one of the thousand times he’d hugged me before. 

Avoid Emotion Words

How do I know if I’m showing? Kill your emotion words.  

Telling: John was so mad he couldn’t stay seated.

Showing: Heat threatened to fuse the collar of John’s shirt to his neck. He stood so fast the metal chair toppled behind him.

Everyone has “go to” emotion words. Make it a point to notice yours. Then make a list and do a search. Take them out in places you want to show and give us a visual instead. 

If I Can’t Use Emotion Words, What Can I Use?

  • Description

Her face turned an odd shade of purple.

  • Action

He ground his teeth so loud I could almost hear his fillings crack.

*Sometimes it’s powerful to show what doesn’t happen.

But she doesn’t yell at me. She doesn’t question me. She doesn’t even look at me.

  • Internal Thought for POV character

Forty-seven minutes of sleep was enough. Right?

  • Similes

A quick, bright smile went 'round the room like a streak of sunshine. (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

  •  Metaphors

When it comes to digging into my life, my dad is Sherlock Holmes.

  • Comparison with a Universal Situation

My stomach took a ride on some seriously choppy waters.

  • Subtext (voice cues, expressions, body language, visceral reactions)

For in-depth info and examples, head over to Margie Lawson’s website at margielawson.com. She’s the queen of subtext!

Subtext evokes emotion. Emotion keeps your readers involved. If we don’t feel what your character feels, we don’t have a reason to care about what happens to her and ... we won’t turn the page.

One Last Thing—Consider Word Choice

Words convey moods. You’d use different words at a funeral than a wedding, even if you were describing the same church.

You’d use different words describing a friendship than a romantic relationship.

How your character perceives a situation should come across through the types of words he uses.

Where do you struggle with “show, don’t tell,” and what helps you make this idea less abstract and more concrete? I’d love if you’d share in the comments!

About Lori

An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.

You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.

30 responses to “Show, Don’t Tell: The 3 Most Misunderstood Words in a Writer’s Vocabulary”

  1. lrtrovi says:

    One of the best treatments of "show versus tell" I've read! Your examples are vivid and I like that you talk about when we really do need to just tell. Thank you.

  2. barbaralinnprobst says:

    Great examples! I do love "kisser's remorse!" I would only add that we need to use descriptions like these judiciously. If they're constant, it becomes over-writing. For me, anyway. I think there are times when simplicity is the most powerful way to pull the reader in and move the story along. Too many visceral descriptions and metaphors can draw attention to the writing rather than the story, IMHO. Like everything, timing and placement and purpose are key. That said, these are terrific examples!

    • Terry Odellt says:

      I am with you on this one, Barbara. It probably has a lot to do with genre, but an entire book written that way would slog for me rather than ramp things up. Descriptions, etc., have to be true to the character, and a lot of times it's a double stop for me. First, I get the original image, and then I have to regroup and re-imagine what the author is showing. I can see "his hair stood up on the back of his neck." When it becomes, "like a stand of tall pine trees" I then have to switch the hairs in my mind to trees. (Simplistic example, but it's early).
      I've been reading mostly mystery recently, and maybe it's the genre, but a concise style hasn't hurt authors like Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, or John Sandford that I can tell.
      Not to say I don't try to show more than I tell, but I don't go into as much visceral depth as some of your examples. (And if I try for "perfect" metaphors, my editor usually cuts them as too distracting.)
      And not to say your examples aren't excellent. They're just not my voice.

    • You are absolutely correct. And that's why sometimes it's okay to tell. Or add something small to show. 🙂

  3. This was great, Lori - I just went through an essay I am about to submit and checked for emotion words. I must be catching on, as I didn't find a single one!

  4. LauraDrake says:

    Excellent, informative, and clarifies a tough misconception Lori, thanks!
    Another way you can find telling is to do a search for ‘was’. Telling and passive structure tends to go together.

    Thanks for this.

  5. Julie Glover says:

    I love how you teach this so clearly! And your tips on when to really show are spot-on. Thanks so much, Lori!

  6. Excellent explanation of when (and when not) to "Show don't tell." I would just emphasize the point to use the "showing" judiciously...for emphasis on a particularly dramatic moment. "Showing" takes longer, and too often it makes the writing self-conscious, calling attention to itself, losing the flow of the story. SO much depends on genre, of course -- a romance calls for a different style than a thriller. But IMO less is more when it comes to 'showing." You don't want your reader drowning in deep POV. ;-D

    • Good point. Drowning is never a good thing! But I do thinking the deeper POV you can write, without overwriting, the more emotion the reader will feel and the more invested he or she will become in the story.

  7. Jeanne Kern says:

    Fabulous examples. Stupendous descriptions. Firecrackers in the brain. Thanks.

  8. A wonderful reference! Using this when crafting scenes and writing chapters, especially now when I'm exploring fiction after years of memoir.

  9. sehbicycle says:

    Awesome recap on show/tell. Thank you for pulling all these examples together. This will help me as I continue editing. I'm overdue for creating a list of these crutch emotion words, using them at the very time that I should be showing the reader. Thank you, again!

    • Everyone has their "crutch" words, don't they? For me, they seem to change from book to book.

      • sehbicycle says:

        Finished word searches in my MS, using the starter list from your graphic. Ding, ding, ding, and the winners for overuse, "hope" followed by "fear" (at least, in this story). Now I've got one more habit to watch out for. Thanks, again, for pulling so many examples together.

  10. Rick George says:

    Wonderful examples broken into categories/strategies. I copied a couple of the opening quotes onto an index card--thank you, Lori!

  11. rolandclarke says:

    This is the best post I've read on a writing problem I suffer from. A first draft disease? I've just finished editing a short so read everything I could on improving my words. This came too late for that short but not for the next edit. Many thanks.

  12. Michelle c Dodson Ferrer says:

    I particularly enjoyed the part of knowing WHEN to use "telling" and "showing" and WHY. That definition helps achieve the balance and assists in self-editing. Thankyou.

  13. Jenny Hansen says:

    I love everything about this post, Lori! But I especially love that you list "when to show and when to tell" examples. Thanks so much for posting with us! You have helped many writers this week. 🙂

  14. Victoria Marie Lees says:

    Once again, I can't thank you all for these explicit examples to help me see how to do this. My first draft always contains this. It's in revision that I can move forward after I have a solid [I hope!] draft of what happens that I can add true feeling. Have a wonderful holiday!

  15. dholcomb1 says:

    I do well at times, and then I slip up. Probably doesn't help I tend to write late at night.

    denise

  16. ecellenb says:

    Brilliant examples! Showing is something I occasionally neglect, catch myself, and need to edit. The list of emotion words as telling is super helpful.

  17. Andre says:

    Why tell if you can do a cut?

    Thank you for the great article.
    Whenever I want to switch to telling (in order to tighten the pace and get from point A to point B quickly), my writing starts to sound forced. It loses all direction. And most importantly, I lose all the fun with it.
    So, instead of telling, I just leave the telling part out and jump forward in time. A hard cut. I proceed with the next bit of showing and describe what happened in between via dialogue or interior monologue, if necessary.
    This does unsettle me a bit. Most of the novels I read contain a lot telling. Plus, all the blogs now revisit the "show don´t tell"-rule and giving it a fresh spin, saying that you need telling, after all. I wonder if I should change my strategy? And why can´t I get the telling done?

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