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Show, Don’t Tell


Show, Don't Tell Julie Pinborough London Copyeditor and Proofreader

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

What is show, don’t tell?


Show, don’t tell is a writing technique.


It’s one of the most frequently given pieces of advice to writers. It’s a golden rule – a rule that generally shouldn’t be broken. But what does the saying mean? And how do we put it into practice?


Before we understand what the technique is, what it does and why we need to use it, we need to define it.


Telling is narration that gives the reader information. It summarises unimportant events and creates detail. Typically, telling requires fewer words and evokes little emotion.


Showing is dramatisation. Typically, showing uses far more words that convey detailed visceral imagery that is immersive for the reader.


Show


The principal of show, don’t tell, is to make sure the reader feels they are in the story with the protagonists — that they are experiencing it through the characters’ feelings and actions and not through the writer’s summary of these things.


Show, don’t tell is how authors develop their plots and characters without making statements.


Example:


Tell: Jo was scared when the horse charged at her.

Show: Jo’s heart raced as the horse turned and bolted towards her.


These two sentences convey the same information:

  • Jo was scared.

  • The horse bolted towards her.

The difference is that the tell sentence does just that — it tells the reader Jo was scared. The show sentence allows the reader to relate to the feeling Jo had. By showing, the reader can experience the race of Jo’s heart.


Example:


Tell: Kate was scared of the dark.

Show: As her mother turned off the light and closed the door, Kate tensed. She drew the duvet up over her head and hid as the darkness took over the room.


In this example, fear becomes the centre of Kate’s situation. The reader can feel what Kate is feeling rather than reading a statement about it.


The above sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? The problem, however, is that advice on this writing technique is often oversimplified for brevity.


Don’t think we can never tell a reader something.

There is a time and place for it, and as with everything else, there needs to be a balance. Imagine reading an entire novel full of showing and no telling. Immersive as that may be, our senses and emotions will be exhausted by the end of it — if we reach the end!


Don’t take this technique as law and assume it should be applied to every sentence.


Tell


Google show, don’t tell, and there is a plethora of information and examples. The majority of this information focuses on the show aspect and don’t let us know when it’s okay to tell the readers something.


Telling gets negative press, but it’s not the evil monster we might think it is.


So, let’s clear this up. Telling is not bad. There is nothing wrong with telling if we know how to do it.


Finding the right balance


Ditch the descriptors — these are words like angry, sad, frustrated, tired, hungry. Descriptors tell us rather than show us. Replace them with sounds, smells and images that feed the readers’ senses (show).


Visualise drama — if you’re about to write a scene, close your eyes, see it, smell it, and hear it before writing. Use your senses. What you experience is what you need to write, so your readers are immersed too (show).


Reconsider verbs — if you are using weak verbs like was/were/is/have etc., reconsider them. Weak verbs are usually part of telling rather than showing (show).


Example:


She was walking on the pavement.

She strode along the pavement.


Which one do you feel is stronger? Which one immerses you more into the scene?


Dialogue tags — use adverbs sparingly. Adverbs like 'loudly' are telling and often cause tautology too. Although ‘he said, she said’ are considered the best tags to use, there still needs to be a variation to make it interesting. Words like yelled, stuttered, demanded can be just as effective (show and tell).


Example:


‘I’m so mad at Jason,’ Emma said angrily.

‘I’m going to throttle Jason next time I see him,’ Emma said.


Scene setting — this can be a mix of showing and telling, but typically, it’s telling with vivid details (tell).


Backstory — don’t dump it on the reader (information dump). Although the backstory is usually told rather than shown, it still needs to be immersive, so it needs to be sprinkled with some show as well – this can be achieved with reflection and emotion (tell and show).


Basic information ­— there’s often no way around having to tell this to the reader, and as mentioned above, to show everything would create an exhausting read. It would also produce a manuscript far too long for publication. The balance here has to be right; otherwise, all the reader has is a list of facts and information. Sprinkling, again, is key to the balance.


More examples of show, don’t tell:


Tell: She was hungry.

Show: Her stomach rumbled.


Tell: She had a headache.

Show: Her head thumped.


Tell: It was raining.

Show: The smell of rain lingered in the air.


Sometimes, telling has more brevity and is a better form of communication; it can come in handy when:

  • emphasising an important thought or action

  • conveying simple backstory

  • showing the passage of time

  • expressing a simple statement

  • shaping most dialogue

  • capturing the narrative voice of some characters

  • transitioning between settings

  • balancing lengthy showing descriptions


Take away


Show, don’t tell can cause a writer to freeze, but it doesn’t need to.


Remember, a fine balance between the two techniques is necessary and show, don’t tell isn’t the absolute law for all writing. Writers aim to immerse their readers in sensory experiences, so play around with your writing style and examine a chapter you have written. What does it do when you deconstruct it? Have you used your senses to write it or just told your reader a lot of facts and information?


Will your reader smell the rain or just know it is raining outside?

These questions will help you understand your writing better and whether you have grasped the show, don’t tell writing technique.


Every time you write a sentence, define show, don’t tell in your mind.


Remember:


Telling is narration that gives the reader information. It summarises unimportant events and creates detail. Typically, telling requires fewer words and evokes little emotion.


Showing is dramatisation. Typically, showing uses far more words that convey detailed visceral imagery that is immersive for the reader.


Most of all, enjoy the experience of finding your show, don’t tell voice. It can be so much fun.


If you'd like a more in-depth understanding of show, don't tell, an excellent resource is Louise Harnby's recent publication which can be found here.

Julie Pinborough copyeditor and proofreader London Dublin Scotland