If there’s one piece of writing advice you’ll get about a zillion times in your writing career, it’s this: Show, don’t tell.
Telling is when you give your readers direct information about a character or part of the story. For instance, you’ll say “Joe was really tall”. You’re telling them a fact about his size and the reader doesn’t need to use their imagination to figure anything out.
Showing, on the other hand, is when you use sensory details and actions to convey meaning rather than stating things directly. So instead of saying “Joe was very tall” you could say, “Joe stooped as he walked through the door”. You’re asking the reader to figure out that Joe is tall rather than telling them directly.
The magic of showing is that it engages the reader’s imagination in a way that telling does not. And when readers have to imagine things for themselves, they develop an emotional bond with the characters and the story as a whole. Showing makes stories come alive. It’s the thing that separates fiction from other forms of writing.
How do you recognise telling and showing?
Here’s a short passage written as telling and as showing. Notice which one engages you more.
Telling: I heard footsteps in the dark behind me and began to feel terrified.
Showing: I stopped abruptly and heard a single footfall behind me. It was him; I knew it! My heart hammered in my chest and I stifled a scream.
Which version draws you in and seem more immediate? I’m betting it’s the second one. The first version tells you explicitly that the narrator is terrified, while the second one lets you feel it for yourself.
Here’s another example:
Telling: He felt stupid.
Showing: Oh, what a fool! he thought.
This is telling the reader what he thought, but it’s not telling the reader what the character feels. The reader must come to this realization themselves.
I think the showing versions in both examples are certainly more evocative, but does this mean you should never tell and always show?
When to tell rather than show
If you compare the examples of telling and showing I’ve given you’ll notice that the showing passages are longer and more detailed than the telling. The telling versions read quickly while the showing versions take longer and slow things down, drawing the reader in.
The simple fact is that sometimes you don’t want to slow the story down and you just want to give the reader some information. For instance:
- to move quickly between scenes
- to summarise events
- to move your characters from one place to another
- to give backstory or historical context
- to describe a minor character
It’s also quite OK to tell the reader what a character is feeling if you don’t particularly need the reader to slow down and feel it for themselves.
Example: She hurried down the road and arrived at the bank, relieved and breathless, a minute before closing time.
Instead of making a rule that says you should always show and not tell, rather focus on mastering both forms of expression so you can use them deliberately.
6 ways to do more showing than telling
Here are six key actions you can take to convert any piece of boring exposition into lively narrative text.
- Cut filter words
Filter words are verbs that filter the action through the perspective of a narrator, reminding us that what we’re reading is being told by someone rather being experienced directly.
Filter words include words like ‘heard’, ‘felt’, ‘smelled’, ‘wondered’, ‘thought’, and ‘saw’. They are all basic sensory words. They seem necessary, but often they’re not.
With filtering: I walked in the garden and smelled the scent of rose and honeysuckle.
Without filtering: The scent of rose and honeysuckle filled the air as I walked in the garden.
Here, the filter word ‘smelled’ is unnecessary and the reworked sentence is better without it.
2. Use concrete rather than abstract language
Telling is a kind of summarised description – it cuts down on the number of words used, but in so doing it loses a lot of detail. We can say that telling tends to use abstract words and phrases while showing is more concrete and detailed.
Abstract words are words like these: Injustice, isolation, anger, suffering, peace, exploitation, fear, love.
Abstract: She loved him
Concrete: She blushed at the mere thought of him
3. Reduce emotion-explaining words
Emotion-explaining words are nouns or adjectives describing states of being. For example: happy, sad, angry, excited, frustrated, love, joy, disgust, bliss.
They describe abstract categories of feeling rather than specific felt experiences. When you find yourself using emotion-explaining words, pause to see if actions, gestures and speech might be more effective.
Telling: Little Jess was so excited when the Christmas tree lights were turned on.
Showing: Little Jess gasped and clapped her hands when the Christmas tree lights were turned on.
4. Use body language, gestures, and actions
People don’t only communicate in words – they use body language, gestures and actions. So instead of telling us someone is angry, show them going red in the face or the muscles in their necks bulging. If they’re sad, let their shoulders slump and let them say sad things.
5. Use dialogue
Instead of telling the reader what someone is doing, thinking, or feeling, see if you can put it into dialogue. Or have another character comment on your focus character.
Telling: Mandy behaved like a real little brat.
Showing: “You little horror!” exclaimed Mother, glaring at Mandy.
6. Clean up info dumps
An info dump is a lengthy passage of exposition that tells the reader some background information and which starts reading a bit more like an essay than a story.
To clear up an info dump, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the reader really need all this information right now?
- Can part of it be moved elsewhere?
- Can this information be dramatised or conveyed in dialogue or action in a way that lets readers figure out the meaning for themselves?
Well, there you have it – a concise introduction to the art of showing not telling. Now don’t be intimidated if this seems a lot to grasp – the fact is that authors spend years working on their technique and getting their balance of narrative and exposition just right. If you want a more in-depth treatment of the subject with exercises and more examples, check out my book and course Write Masterful Fiction (details below).
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