“Show Don’t Tell”

“Show Don’t Tell” is the go-to advice for newbies on the writing journey. So, what is “Show Don’t Tell”? 

Show Don't Tell

“Show Don’t Tell” plunges the reader into a mental image of the scene and provokes a reaction through emotion. It allows the reader to experience events of the story, through imagination, rather than by observation. “Show Don’t Tell therefore, is dramatic and contributes to story development. It provides vivid details to keep the reader actively involved in the story and, therefore, turning pages.

Telling

In contrast, telling dictates what the reader is supposed to see or feel. It states things as simple as possible and fails to evoke emotions. Telling summarizes. When you tell, you rob the reader of the opportunity to get involved, to discover the world you’ve created, and to add something personal to the scene. Consequently, you’re ultimately keeping the reader from delving into the story.

The writer, Anton CheKhov, defines “Show Don’t Tell” like this:

Show Don't Tell

This example sums up “Show Don’t Tell” in one sentence. Rather than stating a fact, plunge the character in a compelling situation where his experience is the focus. Grip the reader’s curiosity, keep him engaged, let him live the experience. As a result, he’ll be unable to put the book down.

“Show Don’t Tell” is easy to understand but certainly takes practice. This writing technique consequently requires more effort as you delve into each emotion. No worries, with practice, “Show Don’t Tell” will become easier.

“Show Don’t Tell” Writing Tips

Show Don't Tell

Use the Five Senses

Take the reader to the scene through the character’s five senses. Take note of what the character sees, touches, tastes, smells, or hears. Then, add details to the scene so the reader can imagine themselves in the setting.

Refrain from naming the sense (she saw, felt scratchy, tasted salty, smelled stinky, was loud). Finally, strive to describe the sensation.

  • Tell:
    • It was autumn and felt chilly. 
  • Show:
    • Orange leaves crunched underfoot as I walked to the mailbox, the crisp breeze prompted me to zip my jacket.
  • Tell:
    • The bread looked delicious. 
  • Show:
    • Fresh from the oven, butter melted into the airy pastry as memories transported me to grandma’s kitchen. 

Use strong verbs to Show Don’t Tell

Show Don't Tell

Strong verbs show action and create an image; such as scurry, skip, twinkle, or paint. 

Static verbs describe or tell. They state a situation, are boring and above all, fail to describe the scene or create tension.

Instead, let’s “show” these same sentences by adding imagery using strong verbs.

  • I am so bored.
    • He flopped on the couch and fiddled with the remote control. 
  • I have candy.
    • Grabbing the bag of rainbow-colored sweets, I thrust it into the air, “Look!”
  • It’s seems like a hard job.
    • Covered in mud, he trudged across the field, struggling to raise the sledgehammer. 
  • Because gum is sticky.
    • Lifting her foot, strings of goo trailed to the wad on the pavement, “Dang, what a mess!”
  • The girl is so pretty.
    • Shoulder length mahogany hair framed porcelain skin highlighted by mesmerizing green eyes. 
  • Her bedroom was rather messy. 
    • Piles of dirty clothes surrounded the unmade bed, papers and books covered the desk, and trash overflowed the wastebasket.

Avoid adverbs to Show Don’t Tell

An adverb is a word that changes the meaning of the verb, adjective, or another adverb. Adverbs are unnecessary when using strong verbs. They  distract the reader. For that reason, Stephen King believes adverbs are used when the author is afraid they can’t express themselves clearly. 

Road to Hell
  • Tell:
    • Deb walked so slowly.
  • Show:
    • Distracted by clouds, flowers, and even a squirrel chase, Deb arrived home to fumble with the doorknob. “How was your day,” mom asked. “Umm….”

Due to removing the adverb and building the scene, you are able to feel Deb’s apprehension. 

It's all in the details

It’s All in the Details

Be specific in the descriptions to create a dynamic scene. Furthermore, use concrete nouns that will give the reader a vivid image. 

  • Tell:
    • Annie has a dog. 
  • Show:
    • Annie entered her apartment and braced for the impact. Sixty pounds of unruly fur and a powerful tail rushed to greet her. “Oh, Bingo, I missed you!” 

Without ever mentioning a dog, you know Annie has one she loves, along with a picture of Bingo in your mind. For that reason, you’re more curious.

Likewise, the Vegas blurb, at the end of the article, is a prime example of detail. 

Use dialogue

Use dialogue

Dialogue is the easiest way of showing because it’s action in real-time, life occurring in the moment. 

  • Tell:
    • I can’t find my keys. 
  • Show:
    • I dumped the contents of my purse on the table. 
    • “Lost your keys again?” 
    • “I don’t have time for this.”
    • My husband chuckled. “How does this happen every day?”
    • “I don’t need a lecture.” Slamming the drawer, I faced him with a scowl, “Do you know where they’re at?” 
    • Pointing at the key rack, he smirked. “Right here, where they belong.” 

Not only do we know the keys were lost, but it’s a chronic habit, the wife is pressed for time, the husband is amused while the wife isn’t. It hints at the husband’s organization skills while the wife may fly by the seat of her pants, setting up their personalities. As a result, it moves the story along in a scenario we can all understand.

Action Reaction

Action and Reaction

Telling brings the story to a halt. In contrast, showing brings it to life. While the setting is important, seize the opportunity to showcase the character’s  reaction and personality.

Focus on body language and facial expressions, therefore, showing how your character reacts physically. 

  • Happy – clap, smile, dance
  • Angry – throw things, raise voice, scowl

You get the idea.

Refrain from naming the emotion or action also:

  • Tell:
    • She’s so mean.
  • Show:
    • She tripped me as I walked down the aisle. 
  • Tell:
    • She’s rather sad. 
  • Show:
    • Muffled sobs seeped from under the closed door.
  • Tell:
    • He’s scared. 
  • Show:
    • While pacing, he bit his fingernails to the quick.
  • Tell:
    • He’s just evil. 
  • Show:
    • He kicked the dog before stumbling to the fridge for a beer. 
  • Tell:
    • Las Vegas is amazing. 
  • Show:
    • Assaulted with noise as she exited the elevator; music thumped, slot machines whined, patrons hooted, laughter erupted. Katie tiptoed through the crowd and sidestepped the waitress balancing drinks. She arrived at the door as an invisible switch flipped to light up the night. Instinctively, she reached for her sunglasses before coming to an abrupt stop. Elvis whizzed by on the zipline. Marilyn Monroe sipped from a 2-foot tall glass. Gene Simmons, in seven-inch platform boots, posed. 

Viva Las Vegas! I’m in – let’s go!

You Can “Show Don’t Tell”

“Show, Don’t Tell” still baffles me. I get the concept. It’s easy to see the difference, and easier to feel the difference. But, putting it into motion takes practice, a lot of practice. I read well-written passages over and over, hoping they will ignite a firestorm of literary genius as natural as breathing. So far, it hasn’t. Most important, I plug on. I’m able to spot exquisite writing, and that’s a step in the right direction. For now, I keep practicing and hope you will too. 

Stay tuned

Intended to be about adjectives, this article took on a life of its own. Stay tuned for the post, Adjectives to Describe Your Character with free PDF’s of character appearance and emotion, unless I get sidetracked again…


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