What does “show don’t tell” mean?
“Show Don’t Tell”. Classic writing rule. We’ve all heard it. But do we really understand it as well as we think we do?
Show Don’t Tell means using evocative language—language that creates strong mental images—rather than matter-of-fact language, which expresses details as cold facts.
Imagine for a second that your story is a play. Your characters can’t turn to the audience in the middle of a scene and tell the audience what they’re thinking. They have to show it. They demonstrate their thoughts, feelings and character traits through action, dialogue and body language.
Of course, books are different from plays, TV shows, movies and other visual media, but this example explains the idea behind showing and telling, and to understand why writing rules become so established and subsequently scorned for being rules, we need to know what they mean and why they were formed in the first place.
The idea behind Show Don’t Tell is that using evocative description over matter-of-fact description forces your reader’s brain to work harder because they have to interpret the text to render the image in their head. In doing so, the reader is engaging with the text, actively participating rather than passively receiving information. This engagement makes them more focused on the text, more able to imagine richer details. Your story has more life. They’re experiencing the scene as it happens, not as a recount. Thus, Show Don’t Tell makes your scenes more vivid.
On the other hand, when you tell your reader something without backing it up with context, they’re not involved and are, therefore, less engaged. This makes it easier for them to lose interest.
No one ever said the rule was “Show Don’t Tell 100% of the time” but apparently that’s the way this “rule” is perceived because I always see people saying “but telling is important!” and a lot of writers are totally confused about when to show and when to tell.
When to show don’t tell
Now we know how Show Don’t Tell can improve your writing, let’s look at how it can damage the story.
- First, showing everything is exhausting for your reader. It’s good to engage them, but don’t make reading your book hard work for them.
- Second, the more attention you give something, the more important it seems, so too much showing can mean that the really important details won’t stand out.
- Third, showing everything slows down the pace because showing usually takes longer than telling. A story that progresses at snails’ pace is boring, no matter how beautiful the imagery is.
- Lastly, because of how many words showing takes up, your book’s word count won’t suit the action of the story. You’ll have used 100,000 words to tell an 80,000 word story.
Clearly, the key is to balance showing and telling. Tell as much as you want in your first draft. When revising, ask yourself:
- how quickly do I want this scene to unfold? Use showing and telling to help control the pace where appropriate, with more showing to slow down the pace and more telling to speed it up. But be sure not to give too much attention to unimportant details.
- How important or dramatic is this scene? If the scene is important or dramatic, more showing should be used. If it’s a transition or recap, it’s better to tell.
- How important are specific details in this scene? Important details should be shown. Trivial details can be told.
- How deep into the scene do I want to draw the reader? The more deeper you want to draw your reader, the more evocative your writing should be.
How to Show Don’t Tell
Now we know when we should show and when we should tell, but how exactly do we show?
The first thing you should know is that adding more detail does not mean adding more adjectives and adverbs. Even though the sentence the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog has adjectives, it’s still telling because I can’t form a vivid image. It tells me the dog is lazy, it doesn’t show me the dog yawning and refusing to get up.
To Show Don’t Tell, you need to be specific about what’s happening in the scene. What specific details about the dog’s body language tell you that it’s lazy? What details would lead you to the conclusion that you would tell.
If you’ve told your reader that the man was angry, was he shouting, were his fists shaking, did he throw something?
If you’ve told your reader that it had rained all night—are raindrops glistening off anything, is water pooling at the bottom of the driveway, does the soil in the garden smell damp?
To Show Don’t Tell, use figurative language. Instead of saying that the man was nervous, say that the butterflies in his stomach had all drunk espresso shots.
To Show Don’t Tell, watch movies and TV shows and write down the ways the actors portray thoughts and emotions. Watching TV is not actually a waste of time for writers despite what some might say because you are allowed to take a break and veg out every once in a while. Writing is hard. Use that time to better your showing skills.
Show Don’t Tell is still a relevant rule that we should all keep in mind when writing, but it’s important to know when and why we should show or tell and what implications this has for our readers. Tell when you need to get the point quickly; show when you want your scene to be vivid.
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