The golden rule of writing: Show, don’t tell

“Show, don’t tell” is probably the advice writers hear most often from editors and writing mentors. But many writers struggle to understand what it really means.

“Telling” means you give readers your interpretations and conclusions, while “showing” means you provide readers with enough details and behaviors to let them draw their own conclusions.

Example:

TELLING: She was a shy woman who didn’t like being around too many people.

SHOWING: She peeked around the corner and gulped at the sight of dozens of people mingling.

Showing pulls readers into the story and keeps them active and involved. Telling makes them passive recipients of a lecture.

How to show

Use the senses. Show readers things they can see, hear, taste, etc. Use concrete nouns and strong verbs that create an image, e.g., “she tiptoed” tells us more than “she walked.” Be specific.

Don’t give readers conclusions, e.g., Rika was a loyal friend. Show them a scene in which Rika is acting in a way that lets readers come to that conclusion on their own.

How to tell when you’re telling

Here are some red flags that might indicate telling:

Using adjectives, especially in combination with linking verbs, e.g., she was, looked, felt, appeared, seemed. This is especially true for abstract adjectives, e.g., beautiful, interesting, etc.

TELLING: Hendrika didn’t seem impressed.

SHOWING: Hendrika tilted her head and peered down her nose, never moving back an inch.

Using adverbs, especially in dialogue tags.

TELLING: “You are such a jerk,” she said angrily.

SHOWING: “You are such a jerk.” She slammed the door.

Using emotion words. Instead of naming emotions, use actions, visceral reactions, and body language to show us how the character is feeling.

TELLING: “It’s not my place to judge,” Hendrika said with her characteristic humbleness.

SHOWING: “It’s not my place to judge.” Hendrika lowered her lashes and peered at black-rimmed fingernails.

Using dialogue tags other than “said” to tell readers how a line of dialogue should be read. Instead, let the dialogue speak for itself.

TELLING: “Get out!” he exclaimed.

SHOWING: “Get the hell out!”

Using “filters.” You’re telling readers what your character sees, hears, feels, etc., instead of letting readers experience it directly.

TELLING: Rika heard Amy suck in a breath.

SHOWING: Amy sucked in a breath.

When to tell

Telling has its place in fiction. If I showed everything, even the stuff that’s not important, my novels would be 500,000 words. So sometimes telling is not a bad thing. Use telling for:

Transitions: Telling allows you to summarize a span of time or distance in which only unimportant stuff happens. For example, it might be better to tell readers “She ate breakfast and then drove to work” instead of showing every spoonful of cereal.

Telling also helps avoid repeating things you already showed, e.g., “She told her boss what the witness had said.” instead of having to repeat the entire conversation with the witness.

For very mundane tasks, telling might be more appropriate, e.g., she shut down her computer instead of: She moved her mouse and clicked on…

I hope these tips help you to show and tell in all the right places.

If you would like to learn more about this powerful writing principle, you might want to check out my book: Show, Don’t Tell: How to Write Vivid Descriptions, Handle Backstory, and Describe Your Characters’ Emotions.

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