“Show, don’t tell” might be the three most misunderstood words in a writer’s vocabulary.
Show, Don't Tell
- 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
Summarizing for the reader.
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.
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.
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?
Her face turned an odd shade of purple.
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?
A quick, bright smile went 'round the room like a streak of sunshine. (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)
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!
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.