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“Show, Don’t Tell”

show-dont-tellIt’s one of the most commonly cited pieces of advice for writers: show, don’t tell. But…what the heck does it mean? And how do you go about accomplishing it?

Today, I’m going to dig into “show, don’t tell” and see if I can offer some clarity.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

~Anton Chekov

What does it mean?

The best way to explain is to give examples. (You know: show you. Har, har.)

Here’s telling: “I was angry.”

Here’s showing: “I clenched my fists and blood pulsed in my ears.”

Telling is the lazy way out. Telling is often just a matter of labeling something—an emotion or a quality.

Another example?

Telling: “He was handsome.”

Showing: “He had cheekbones you could open soup cans with. Shoulders of a blacksmith. And he wore an Armani tux that would make Giorgio himself break out in opera…”

Why is it important?

As you can probably discern from the above examples, showing allows a reader to slip inside a book, experience it for themselves as though first hand. When you read a book that is heavily TOLD, you have the feeling of “hovering”. You know what’s happening, it’s all being reported, but you’re not…there.

Sometimes readers can’t quite put their finger on what’s wrong. Common complaints: “I didn’t really feel connected to the characters.” Or “I didn’t find myself caring.” Or “I was bored.”

You do not want people to make those complaints about your book.

“In writing. 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. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, “Please will you do my job for me.””

~C.S. Lewis

What kinds of things can you show?

Showing can apply to many things, but the elements you want to pay closest attention to are these:

  • emotions & feelings
  • qualities of characters & character development
  • qualities of physical things & places
  • events & plot developments

How to spot “telling” in your manuscript:

Telling can be so insidious, you may not even notice when you’ve done it. When flying through a first draft, a lot of it will likely end up being “told”. That’s okay. It’s something to tackle during your revision drafts.

How to spot it? Look for these flags:

⇒ filter words: he noticed, he felt, he saw, she seemed, she decided, he thought, she knew…

⇒ places where you have LABELED emotions: I was angry, I felt relieved…(instead of TELLING us how the character feels, you want to SHOW that emotion.)

⇒ the word realized. As in: I realized he was here, standing in the doorway. Better? He stood in the doorway. See how that first sentence creates a layer of distance? Your reader is one step removed from actually experiencing the events of the book.

⇒ the words thought or considered. Now this one can be tough. If you’re merely telling the reader what a character is thinking, you may be spoon-feeding. Sometimes this can be okay, but be careful you’re not adding an extra step of telling us the character is having a thought.

As in: I reached the crossroads and considered my options. Should I go left, or right?

See how that’s tell-ish? Cut the considered phrase, and simply make it: I reached the crossroads. Should I go left, or right?

⇒ adverbs, particularly vague ones. “He said angrily” is very tell-ish. Show the anger (kicking something, or slamming a door, perhaps?) and we’ll figure it out.

So…now that you’ve found some places where you’re doing too much telling, you’ll want to show instead.

How to do that? Like this…

How to “show”:

  • physiologic responses: throat tightens, skin prickles, nausea, sweating…
  • external action: fiddle with the hem of a sweater, chew a fingernail…
  • dialogue: be cautious. No “As you know, Bob…” statements.
  • internal monologue – but don’t make it “show-y”—this one is tricky. See my points above about “considered” and “thought”.
  • or, take Orson Scott Card’s advice and write about motivation instead of feelings. What does a character want, and why? Showing and describing that, and letting the reader feel the feelings that would go along with that, is much more effective.

 Don’t give the audience four; give them two plus two. ~Andrew Stanton, filmmaker (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)

One Response to ““Show, Don’t Tell””

  1. […] “Show don’t tell” is probably the oldest generic writing tip ever uttered by anyone who claims to know anything about […]


Kim Foster writes YA and adult books about thieves, spies, and assassins. (Read More)

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