For Aspiring Writers

Showing and Telling

You will have most probably have heard the phrase, ‘show, don’t tell’, and whilst this piece of advice is vital for most part of the story, telling in some cases, is also necessary.

You will find many quotes from writers that help exercise ‘show, don’t tell’, my favourite being by Anton Chekhov:

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

Why is showing a story important?

The biggest reason is that showing a story helps the reader empathise with the character. It is a lot less effective to tell the reader ‘be scared’, than to show them an emerging figure, than then their footsteps racing across the midnight streets, then their own ears failing on them as they try to lower their panting and hear for any sounds, and then that single tap on the shoulder and a heavy breath burning on their chilled neck.  Empathy is absolutely key to gaining reader interest, and by telling a story, you will at most, gain sympathy, which, when provoked repeatedly, can very easily morph into pity, or pure hatred for your protagonist!

Techniques to show and not tell

  • Imagery and sensory language – imagery includes the use of similes, metaphors and personification. Sensory language involves using vivid description that helps tune with one (or more) of the five senses. This works much better than stringing any old adjective into a sentence, because by giving a comparison, the reader can visualise and relate to what is being described. Rather than saying, ‘he was passionate about music’, it would be much more effective to say, ‘he closed as his eyes as he strummed the guitar, like listening to his partners serenade’
  • Dialogue – this works extremely well when trying to execute a particular emotion of a character. Instead of saying, ‘Nathan was frustrated’, it would be much more effective for your reader to hear Nathan say, ‘My phone? Where on earth is my pho–Jamie please, cut that out!’
  • Use the right verbs – Telling your reader will be saying ‘It was’, showing them is saying, ‘it felt’, ‘I saw’, and ‘there was’. It makes a big difference.
  • Pathetic fallacy and symbolism – These two techniques subtly hint at a particular mood or message, and works very well to set the scene and with the subconscious mind. Don’t overdo this one. Don’t make it scream, ‘HE’S SAD’. A simple, Harvey walked along the wet pavement of Lisa’s street, making no attempts to avoid the cracked, weed infested slabs, would be sufficient.

When is telling more important than showing?

  • Backstory – back story should only be done sparingly, a sentence or two here or there throughout the story. Something like ‘like that time when Aunt Marcy slapped me for stepping on her flower bed’. You don’t need to describe the whole scene, because it’s no longer as relevant.
  • When creating impact – for ground breaking lines like ‘He shot Mrs. Tea’, telling can sometimes be more effective, especially for concluding sentences for a chapter.

Over time, knowing when to show and not tell (and vice versa) will come to naturally, if it hasn’t already, but when you come to the re-writing phase, don’t hesitate to ask yourself if a particular part of your story will work in another way. Both showing and telling are effective tools, and although showing definitely takes place throughout the majority of it, don’t underestimate the power of just saying it as it is.

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8 thoughts on “Showing and Telling

  1. Excellent article! I was reading the script, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO the other day. It said, “The 4:30 train leaves the station without Blomkvist. “Wow,” I said to myself! That’s a wonderful example of showing. I probably would have relayed that information through dialogue. I have so much to learn but I’m going to do it quickly.

  2. Great and useful info!!! Thanks 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Perspectives in Long Term Care and commented:
    Terrific piece and speaking for myself, quite timely. I struggle mightily with this.

  4. I’ve gotten the critique to “show, not tell” several times and never quite understood what that means. This article has really helped define the concept for me. Thanks

  5. Thank you so much for all your comments, and I definitely agree that although this term is tossed around quite often, it is quite hard to what you have to do to achieve. 🙂

    ~ JLT

  6. Pingback: One-Minute Writer – “Love” « shanjeniah

  7. Reblogged this on Kicking the Pants and commented:
    This is a great overview of showing vs. telling.

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