Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Show, Don't Tell - What does it mean?

Hey guys! I'm going to tackle a question provided by a fellow reader last week, on showing instead of telling. You've probably all heard that before, but what IS it? What does it mean? And why do we do it?

First of all, when you hear someone say in regards to your writing "show, don't tell" it means the editor or critiquer of your work wants you to rewrite that portion in a more appealing, and stronger, way. (PS - that's WHY we do it. It typically makes the writing stronger)

Here are some examples out of my head:

She looked mad. - telling. You're simply saying she looked mad but as a reader we don't really see it.
Her brow furrowed as a slow flush invaded her cheeks - showing - you gave the reader a description to see.

He sounded nervous. - telling
His voice cracked - showing. (this could still be seen as telling to someone really hardcore about this element, but your reader at least in this case can hear the nerves in the character's voice without just being told he was nervous)

The sun rose above the hills. - telling (this isn't BAD, it's just matter of fact and a little boring)
Golden streams of sunlight crested the wheat-coated hill - showing.

Think about the details. We tend to "tell" most in regards to emotion, so think about what that emotion would do to you as a person. Like as in my nervous example - when you are nervous, what happens physically? Your heart rate increases. You feel adrenaline. Your stomach churns. Your voice might pitch. Your palms might sweat. Use those details to show instead of tell, but remember to be careful about whose point of view you're in. If you're in the hero's POV, you can't describe the heroine's nerves accurately because he can't feel what she feels. In that case you'd have to rely on the hearing, like I did with the voice cracking, or the hero could SEE the heroine rub her palms down her jeans, etc. However, if you're in the POV of the character who is experiencing the emotion, you have a lot more room to play around with it. If the POV character is nervous, then a "a herd of butterflies paraded through her stomach" or "her heart thundered in her chest and threatened to leaping across the crowded room" or etc.

Basically, show vs tell means more description and less passive writing. Telling is sometimes what you do in a first draft (for those of you who write them) to just get your story down and keep going while you have momentum - showing is what you should strive to go back and do in the polishing stages or rewriting stages.

Of course there are exceptions and you can't literally show your ENTIRE novel, or a 80k story would take 500k words ;)  You can see just in my examples that usually the showing takes more words - yet it provides a better, stronger, more visual way of writing and providing your reader with what they want to engage in the story.

Master this, and you'll rise above in that dreaded slush pile. Knowing how to show instead of tell in your writing is one of the greatest indicators of a strong writer and not an amateur one.


  1. *like*
    I often "watch" my story in my head like a movie and try to describe what I see happening in all it's detailed glory. :D

  2. This is a fantastic post, Betsy!!

  3. Finally... Someone explains this. Thanks for showing us rather than just telling us. ;)

  4. Thanks Erynn!! HAHAHA Ashley. You're welcome ;)

    Cjoy, good idea!

  5. Thanks for the great post! This really helped to answer my question..especially the part about being careful when writing in the hero's POV - I hadn't thought about that before. Now to go and revisit the story.
    Again. ;)

  6. Good post. I like. One question about technical:
    You wrote, "and providing your reader with what they want to engage in the story."
    I see this more and more. You used "reader" as singular, yet "they" as plural.
    Is there a new move to do this kind of thing? Or have we fallen into this noun-pronoun non-agreement to avoid perceived "sexist" use of "his" or "her"?