Show me, don’t tell me.

I know this old chestnut comes up time and again, but I’m revisiting it again because it still causes problems, particularly for those new to the writing game.

Every writer will have come across the expression, ‘Show, don’t tell’, whether it’s in a creative writing how-to book, during a writing tutorial or in an on-line forum or blog. It has become a cliché in itself, but what does it actually mean to the fledgling writer? It’s a surprisingly tricky concept to get the hang of, so let’s pick it apart and examine it.

Showing:  Here, our aim is to enable our readers to experience the story through our character’s actions, thoughts and feelings, rather than by description and exposition alone. We are making the story more vivid and dramatic; we are bringing our characters to life and inviting a deeper understanding of their motivations and thought processes. For instance, we can tell the reader that a character is a bully, which might be true, but it’s a bit flat and boring. Or we can show his bullying tactics in action as he harasses the young woman in his office. We can imply a character’s temperament, their frame of mind, opinions and beliefs through their thoughts, actions and dialogue, rather than the use of adjectives and adverbs. The idea is to generate an emotional response from our readers and stimulate their imagination. We are encouraging them to experience our ideas through their interpretation of the details we have cleverly seeded throughout the story.

Telling:  Bluntly put, telling is stating the facts. She was childish; he’s a drunk, that kind of thing. It is no substitute for showing when we are trying to develop engaging and compelling, three-dimensional characters, but telling has its place. When we simply want to inform, to move the story along or get our characters from A to B without engaging the reader in these trivial details, it’s quite acceptable to use description, to tell, otherwise the story would be very long indeed. Important scenes need to be dramatised with showing, but the bits in between can be told concisely so that the story can progress. This will also ensure that your important scenes are not drowned out by the embellishment of minor ones and your readers will not become exhausted trying to tell the difference.

Cutting corners:  New writers often mistake the use of adjectives and adverbs for showing. Wrong. Smiling tenderly or shouting bravely doesn’t show your readers anything, except perhaps your misunderstanding of the concept. It’s still telling, with added panache, and it adds nothing to the picture of the character your reader is trying to build. Changing speech tags or descriptors won’t win you any Brownie points either, because that’s still telling, too. Practiced writers ration their use of unusual speech tags. ‘He said’, ‘she said’ do the job perfectly well without distracting the reader. An occasional, ‘she gasped’ or ‘he grumbled’ will season your writing, but used too often they will break the flow, betray your inexperience and exasperate your readers.

A useful exercise: Try writing a piece of dialogue without using any speech tags at all. The object is to make the characters distinguishable from each other purely by what they say and how they express themselves, with no help from identifiers. This is also a great way of showing the characters to your readers. You are telling the reader nothing; they have to be able to interpret the characters’ feelings and thought processes only from what they say.

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5 thoughts on “Show me, don’t tell me.

  1. This is one of the hardest writing points for most people to grasp (myself included). As readers, I think subconsciously we “get it” and know when a writer has it right. But when we start writing, we come to learn it’s not an easy thing to do well. I still struggle with it!

    • You’re absolutely right – it is difficult, and I still struggle too. It’s all too easy to fall into ‘telling’ mode without realising it. It’s not a simple concept and it takes a lot of practice, reading and writing, to get it right. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Reader Feedback On Character Descriptions | Christy Farmer

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