We’ve all heard everyone from English teachers to writing coaches tell us to show, not tell.
But what exactly does it mean to show rather than tell?
“To bring your reader into your fictional world, you need to offer data for all the senses. You want to make sure your readers see the rain’s shadow, taste the bitterness of bad soup, feel the roughness of unshaven skin, smell the spoiled pizza after an all-night party, hear the tires screech during the accident.” — Chris Lombardi, Gotham Writers Handbook
Overview of Show, Don’t Tell
Telling is summarizing. You are supplying the reader of information. This is fine in journalism and technical writing.
Fiction writing, however, wants to put the reader into the story, allowing them to see the events as they happen.
Showing is slowing things down, zooming in, and describing details that really help the reader paint a picture in their mind. It means getting on the ground and seeing, hearing, and feeling everything up close.
Rather than telling your reader that the character is sad, show it by describing her face flushing, his eyes flooding with tears, her lower lips trembling, and her plucking a Kleenex from the box. Another character might say, “Are you okay? You look like you’re crying.”
Telling makes the reader part of the experience. It’s like virtual reality in a book.
Telling: Mike was angry.
Showing: Mike took a stapler off his desk and hurled it towards the office door. Stunned, Carla froze as the black device whizzed past her. Staples exploded out of it and filled the old, blue carpet.
Telling: Buster was an old dog.
Showing: Buster’s grey whiskers dropped down each side of his moist, black nose.
Telling: the car was new.
Showing: The chrome on the Jeep’s wheels sparkled in the sunlight, and the bright red paint seemed as smooth and fresh as Aunt Becky’s nails right after her weekly manicure.
From The Time Traveler’s Wife. This specific showing of the library really helps us to see and know the character so much more than if the narrator had simply said Claire went into the library and up to special collections.
Telling: Claire went into the library and up to special collections.
Showing: “The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble…I have never been to the Newberry Library before, and now that I’ve gotten past the dark, foreboding entrance I am excited. I sort of have a Christmas-morning sense of the library as a big box full of beautiful books. The elevator is dimly lit, almost silent. I stop on the third floor and fill out an application for a Reader’s Card, then I go upstairs to Special Collections. My boot heals rap on the wooden floor.”1
Another example is from The Hunger Games.
“Somewhere far away, I can hear the crowd murmuring unhappily as they always do when a twelve-year-old girl gets chosen because no one thinks this is fair. And then I see her, the blood drained from her face, hands clenched in fists at her side, walking with stiff, small steps up towards the stage, passing me, and I see the back of her blouse has become untucked and hangs out over her skirt. It’s this detail, the untucked blouse forming a ducktail, that brings me back to myself.
“Prim!” The strangled cry comes out of my throat, and my muscles begin to move again. “Prim!”2
Using details such as the clenched hands and blouse untucked from her skirt help paint the scene and draw the reader into the action.
Tips for Writers
Writers can use specific techniques to help place the reader in the scene.
Make your writing as specific as possible by using particular nouns instead of vague ones. Write using active verbs, to make your writing more engaging to the reader. Active voice also generally provides more facts to the reader.
Telling: There was a person working behind the counter.
Showing: The gray-haired woman sorted packages behind the post office counter.
[One is a lot more specific than the other, and the reader has a better idea of the setting, scene, etc.]
Passive versus active. Try to use active voice when possible.
Passive: The report was read by Joan.
Active: Joan read the report.
Point of View. Point of view (POV) is the character who is telling the story. The one that you choose will help draw the reader into the scene.
First person—written as “I,” “me,” etc. “I averted my eyes from the tragic accident.”
Second person—written as “You.” i.e., “You avert your eyes from the tragic accident.” Not used that often, more in choose your own adventure stories, games, etc.
Third person—A point of view that is referred to as “he” or “she.” Third-person usually limited only has one character per story. Multiple third person view allows for multiple character POVs, but it’s preferable to only have one per chapter.
Omniscient—Playing god. There is no single character POV and jumps from POV to POV of each character with comments from the author. Not used much in modern fiction.
Dialogue. Dialogue advances the plot and shows characterization. It also involves the reader, just like eavesdropping on conversations in real life.
Telling: I had a great conversation with Mary at the meeting and loved hearing her stories.
Showing: I barely wrote a single word, riveted by Mary. “Why did you go to Kenya again?” I asked, eager to hear more.
Use your five senses when writing Use your words to describe visual imagery, such as colors, sizes, and shapes, as well as other senses such as hearing, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures.
Telling: Patricia ate what she thought was an orange slice and quickly realized it was a lemon.
Showing: Patricia thought she was biting into an orange slice and was shocked as her mouth exploded with the bitter taste of a lemon.
In short, don’t just say, “This happened, and that happened.” Pretend you are watching a movie and give life to the scene.
When Telling is Okay
Sometimes you do need to summarize, or tell, to get the story to move along. For example, we may show the vital moment when Prim is chosen as a competitor, but we don’t need to show the minute details of her putting on her skirt or brushing her teeth unless it plays an integral part of the story later.
A throwaway line about “I just got back from a business trip to London,” does not require a detailed showing of the character packing for the trip, dressing, getting a cab to the airport, coming back from the trip, etc. If the trip to London is vital to the plot (i.e., “How could you afford that?”), then you can quickly summarize the fact that the character went on a trip, got back, and is now about to embark on a journey.
Showing can be reserved crucial moments like when you want to show important actions and events that move along the plot. It can also be used for descriptive cases, such as describing the character’s home or how they dress.
1 The Time Traveler’s Wife: Npr. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/books/titles/139154132/the-time-travelers-wife
2 On The Same Page – 2010 – About The Book. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cincinnatilibrary.org/samepage/2010/aboutbook.aspx