You’ve heard this writing advice a thousand times, and you’ll hear it a thousand times more:
Show, don’t tell.
But what does it mean?
If you struggle with the difference between showing and telling, you’re not alone. Once you’ve got it, it seems simple. But until you do, learning this technique can be as frustrating as anything in the writing world.
So let’s see if I can solidify the concept in your mind right here, right now.
I want to supercharge your showing vs. telling radar—and make it simple.
The Difference Between Showing and Telling
When you tell rather than show, you inform your reader of information rather than allowing him to deduce anything.
You’re supplying information by simply stating it. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.”
Showing paints a picture the reader can see in her mind’s eye.
Here’s how to show and not tell:
If your character is tall, your reader can deduce that because you mention others looking up when they talk with him.
Or he has to duck to get through a door. Or when posing for a photo, he has to bend his knees to keep his head in proximity with others.
Rather than telling that your character is angry, show it by describing his face flushing, his throat tightening, his voice rising, his slamming a fist on the table. When you show, you don’t have to tell.
Cold? Don’t tell me; show me. Your character pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face away from the biting wind.
Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look shot.”
When you show rather than tell, you make the reader part of the experience. Rather than having everything simply imparted to him, he sees it in his mind and comes to the conclusions you want.
What could be better than engaging your reader—giving him an active role in the story experience experience?
Telling: When they embraced, she could tell he had been smoking and was scared.
Showing: When she wrapped her arms around him, the sweet staleness of tobacco enveloped her, and he shivered.
Telling: The temperature fell and the ice reflected the sun.
Showing: Bill’s nose burned in the frigid air, and he squinted against the sun reflecting off the street.
Telling: Suzie was blind.
Showing: Suzie felt for the bench with a white cane.
Telling: It was late fall.
Showing: Leaves crunched beneath his feet.
Telling: She was a plumber and asked where the bathroom was.
Showing: She wore coveralls, carried a plunger and metal toolbox, and wrenches of various sizes hung from a leather belt. “Point me to the head,” she said.
Telling: I had a great conversation with Tim over dinner and loved hearing his stories.
Showing: I barely touched my food, riveted by Tim. “Let me tell you another story,” he said.
Tips to Help You Avoid Telling
Instead of telling, with clunky dialogue like this:
“Just because you’re in this hospital because you were nearly killed in that wreck when Bill was driving, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t forgive him.”
“What are you going to do about Bill? He feels terrible.”
“He ought to.”
“Well, has he visited?”
“He wouldn’t dare.”
What actually happened can emerge in realistic dialogue as the story progresses.
Participating in the experience is part of the fun of being a reader.
Appeal to Readers’ Senses
There’s nothing quite like the human imagination.
Used wisely, suggestive imagery can help you grab your readers’ attention, transport them to a different world, as long as you don’t draw attention to the writing itself and remind them they’re reading.
- Starlings soared in dark flocks.
- Covered in soot, he carried his son from the blaze.
Thunder rattled the windows.
- Laughter broke the silence.
- Pumpkin and cinnamon wafted from the kitchen.
- She awoke to the aroma of percolating coffee.
- Her lips puckered as the lemon touched her tongue.
- He savored the fluid yolk of the Eggs Benedict.
- The smooth stone felt cool in her palm.
- Smooth silk swallowed Rita in the bed.
Use Powerful Verbs
Action verbs, as opposed to state-of-being verbs, trigger the theaters of your readers’ minds, allowing them an important role in experiencing your story.
A woman once told me she was thrilled to discover a book she’d cherished as a child. She eagerly thumbed through it, looking for the beautiful paintings she remembered so well, only to discover the book had no illustrations.
The author had so engaged the theater of her young mind that she had imagined those very real impressions.
Active Voice Adds Power
To eliminate passive voice, eliminate as many of your state-of-being verbs as possible (is, am, are, was, were, etc.—Google a list and print it).
Passive: The party was planned by Jill.
Active: Jill planned the party.
Passive: The wedding cake was made by Ben.
Active: Ben made the wedding cake.
Passive: The Little League team was given trophies by the coaches.
Active: The coaches gave trophies to the Little League team.
Resist the Urge to Explain (RUE)
She glanced up at the clouds in the sky.
He walked through the open door.
Readers are intelligent. They want to be able to deduce things, not to be led by the nose.
When Telling is Acceptable
Narrative summary is sometimes prudent.
Say you have to get your character to a location where the real action happens.
There’s no need to invest several pages showing every aspect of the trip from packing, dressing, getting a cab to the airport, going through security, boarding the plane, arriving, etc. Rather, it’s okay to you quickly tell it this way:
He flew to Washington, where he…
Then return to showing mode, concentrating on the heart of what happened there.
Show, Don’t Tell Examples
Learn the art of showing (and occasionally telling) from those who’ve done it successfully.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Some writers make you want to emulate them. Frazier makes me want to surrender and simply read.
“The hay field beyond the beaten dirt of the school playground stood pant-waist high and the heads of grass were turning yellow from need of cutting. The teacher was a round little old man, hairless and pink of face. He owned but one rusty, black suit of clothes and a pair of old overlarge dress boots that curled up at the toes and were so worn down that the heels were wedge-like. He stood at the front of the room rocking on the points.”
The reason it works? Besides the fact that he works the description into the action, he makes you forget you’re reading. That’s the goal.
The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle
In this novel, Dr. John Watson’s observation of Sherlock Holmes could’ve been boring, but notice how Doyle handles it:
“So swift, silent and furtive were his movements like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defense.”
The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
Describing Mordor, Tolkien leaves no question about its dangers.
“The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Morrison brilliantly condenses years into one paragraph of narrative summary:
“Men and women were moved around like checkers. Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the stock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.”
Why the Book Is Usually Better Than the Movie
The reader’s mind is more imaginative than anything Hollywood can put on the screen. Well-written books trigger readers to create their own visuals.
That’s why it’s worth your time to master the art of showing.