Show don’t Tell – Post 1 of 4

showdontellI’m just going to jump right into this, because there’s really no easy way to start this topic. “Show don’t tell” is one of those things writers hear about all the time, and it’s a concept that causes no end of frustration for new writers and veterans alike. Don’t believe it? Just take a stroll around the internet and see how many different articles, books and advice blogs there are on the topic. (Yeah, I realize I’m adding to the dog pile here).

I’m going to tackle this in a series of posts. The complete list is below.

Post 1: What is “Show don’t Tell”
Post 2: How do we know if we are using “Show don’t Tell”
Post 3: When is it ok to “Tell” instead of “Show” 
Post 4: Showing inner thoughts and other “Show don’t Tell” myths.
Extra : More articles on “Show don’t Tell”

In this first post we talk about what “show don’t tell” means and why it’s important.

Tell: This means we are telling the reader a fact. For example: Jim was sad.

Show: This involves using specific images or details to show the reader the same fact. For example: Tears welled up in the corners of Jim’s eyes. He sank to his knees, rocking back and forth as the sobs shook him.

In most cases, showing is preferred over telling. Why is that? Well that gets to be a lot more complicated.

Let’s take another scene. Our heroine has to choose between three doors – only one leads to freedom, the others lead to certain death at the hands of a monster.

Tell: Glenda had to decide which door to choose. She was extremely nervous. She knew a horrifying monster would kill her if she opened the wrong one. She had never felt so terrified in her life.

Did reading that scene give you the feels? Were you nervous and terrified? Probably not.

So why isn’t this scene effective? Well, it’s the way the writing tells the reader what emotions to feel. The reader is told to feel nervous and terrified. Glenda is nervous and terrified, so the reader should be too, right?

The problem is humans don’t feel emotions just because we are told to. Try it…right now. I’m going to tell you to feel sadness.

Did you feel sad just because I told you to? I’m guessing you didn’t. But if I said my 6 month old puppy developed a painful tumor in her spine, and I couldn’t afford the surgery to save her…my guess is you might feel a little tug in your chest. (Please don’t worry, I don’t have a puppy and if I did, I would sell my own kidneys to scrape together the money to save her).

Anyway, the point is humans feel emotions when we empathize with someone – we put ourselves in their situation and we feel what they feel.

That’s what showing is all about. We have to show what is happening to the character and pull the reader into that experience. If we can convince the reader they are the person in the story, and they are experiencing what the character is experiencing, then the reader will feel Glenda’s emotions.

pickadoorShow: Glenda’s hand wavered between the three doorknobs. Sweat slicked her palms. Chose correctly and she would step out into the world a free woman. Chose wrong and she would end up like the others – and those bodies had to be identified using dental records. She swallowed dryly. Would the creature’s claws tear into the soft flesh of her stomach first or would those razor sharp fangs slice through her jugular? Oh God, please let this be the right door. She turned the knob.

To be sure, the second example uses a lot more words. In fact there is a school of thought that says adding more specific details to your writing will automatically introduce more showing. There may be a kernel of truth to that, but the specifics have to contribute to the point of the scene. For example it wouldn’t make sense to add the specific detail that Glenda’s hair is red. Having red hair isn’t going to make the reader feel any more concern for Glenda. Unless of course the last 10 people to get hacked up have been redheads.

But more important than the imagery words the “showing” example uses, is the words it doesn’t use – like “felt” and “nervous” and “terrified”. It’s not telling the reader how to feel. It’s not telling the reader what emotion they should experience…because as we know, they won’t feel an emotion just because we tell them to.

Instead, in the showing example, the reader is drawn into the experience. They see Glenda’s shaking, sweat covered hands. They hear her inner thoughts about ending up as a corpse so mangled it can only be identified by dental records. And then they are hit with the visceral image of having their guts ripped out and their neck sliced into. Those images invoke a feeling in the reader. Hopefully the reader grimaces as they think about their own guts getting the blender treatment. Invoking that feeling in the readers is exactly what we’re after. We want the readers to feel the terror…without being literally told they should feel terror.

Put the reader right there in the room with the monster and believe me, they will get plenty of the feels.

That’s why “show don’t tell” is so important. Think about your favorite books book-hugand my guess is you felt deeply connected to the characters in the story. You empathized with them. If they suffered tragedies, you suffered right along with them. If they felt joy and happiness, you were right there grinning from ear to ear. If they were angry, your blood boiled like it was on fire.

Hey, just for kicks let’s do one more example. This time our goal is to write a scene that shows a man is lying to his wife about what he was doing last night.

See if you can determine which example is “showing” and which is “telling.”

Example 1:
Brett smiled disarmingly and sat down across from her. He fidgeted nervously in the chair. “Sorry I’m late. Got busy at the office.” Normally his voice was strong and confident, but now it just made him sound guilty.

Glenda narrowed her eyes. He was lying, she could tell. He was busy at the office all right. Probably with that little twenty-something floosy from the mailroom. Even that stupid grin on his face made it clear he was lying.

Example 2:
“Sorry I’m late. Got busy at the office.” Brett shifted positions in his chair.

Glenda nodded. Busy at the office? She’d called there three times.

He crossed his legs and smiled – his fingers drumming on one knee. “Hey! Are you hungry? Want to get Chinese tonight? You were talking about some new place down on the corner, right.” He stood up, fumbling to grab his coat from the back of the chair.

Glenda closed her eyes. Did he really think she was that stupid? For crying out loud he still reeked from the stench of cheap perfume.

Did you pick the 2nd example as showing? I hope so, because that’s the right one.

But you might wonder why the first example is telling. I mean after all, it shows Brett smiling and it shows him fidgeting. Isn’t that showing? Well…yes it is showing a physical action. However, look at those vile little adverbs that cling to both actions. “smiled disarmingly” and “fidgeted nervously”. We are specifically telling the reader Brett is disarming and then nervous…and later we tell the reader his voice sounds “guilty”.

The telling goes downhill from there. At one point it literally says “He was lying, she could tell.” Yeah, the word “tell” is a bit of a tip-off here. The reader is finding out that Brett is lying because the writer is literally telling the reader that Brett is a no-good dirty liar.

Compare that to the 2nd example. Nowhere does it come out and tell the reader Brett is a liar, but by the end of the passage, the reader knows without a doubt the man is full of it.

Ok, that’s it for this post. In the next post, I’ll talk about how you can figure out if you are using “telling or showing” in your writing.

Have a comment? I’d love to hear them!!

All the best,
JD Burns


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