“Show, don’t tell.” Every fiction writer has heard the phrase ad nauseam. It’s handed down from seasoned scribes to newbies with seriousness and reverence. We’re told it’s the key to writing stories that come alive rather than fall flat.
Most fiction writers have at least a basic understanding of what “show, don’t tell” means, but they haven’t necessarily figured out how it applies to their writing, or even whether it’s good counsel. Let’s demystify this classic writing advice once and for all.
The Meaning of “Show, Don’t Tell”
We like things we can experience. Take first grade show-and-tell, for example. Didn’t you always get bored with the kid who droned on about a series of events? This happened, and then that happened, and then he felt, and then …. Enough already!
But what if one of your classmates used great sensory details to tell a story about a summertime adventure gone awry? Imagine Susie in front of the class recounting her tale of a hungry bear marauding her family’s campsite early one morning. She describes the way her heart raced as she heard the bear sniffing and huffing just outside her tent, and the way her mother’s eyes widened, and her father’s breathing grew so loud and frantic she worried the bear would hear it and discover them. That’s a story you’ll remember!
The stories we love go beyond describing events and emotions to making us feel as though we’re experiencing them ourselves. When you’re on the edge of your seat because you can almost hear a bear padding past your tent on its way to a cooler full of hot dogs and lunch meat, the storyteller has done her job.
Simply put: telling dictates sensory details and emotions, showing evokes them.
Should you always show, never tell?
All stories have exposition—segments where the author straight up tells us what’s happening or what a character is feeling. Not only is it unavoidable; it’s essential. A story would become long and plodding if everything was rendered in minute sensory detail. Sometimes you need a summary to get you from one point in the story to another.
Showing versus telling is a balancing act. If your editor, teacher, or beta reader drops the “show, don’t tell” dictum on you after reading your manuscript, it probably means you’re telling too often, not that you need to stop telling altogether. Bring things into balance, and your story will improve.
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An Example of Telling Versus Showing
“To be” verbs like is, are, was, were, and been can be indicators of telling. When you spot them, ask yourself whether you meant to dictate a state of being or whether your story would be better if you evoked a sensory detail.
John was a talented singer.
If John’s singing isn’t essential to the story, or he’s a minor character, or you need to fill in backstory, it may be fine to say he was a talented singer and leave it at that. (Although you may want to reconsider whether that particular detail is necessary at all.) But if your goal is to highlight John’s singing chops, show us.
When John approached a microphone, his audience hung suspended. The anticipation grew, an exquisite torment, as they waited for his silky baritone—the vocals easing in after the intro like a joint into a well-oiled groove. His audiences craved that torment, and he performed to packed houses night after night.
Now we know that John’s a talented singer (without you saying it) because you’ve put us on the scene. You’ve invoked an image of a man at a microphone in a dark club, his audience hanging on his every note. That’s the power of showing. Wield it wisely whenever you want to draw your reader into your story’s world.
Telling is a useful fiction device
In movies, we tend to groan when a character gives a monologue with the sole purpose of filling in some background information. It feels heavy-handed and contrived. Exposition in film only works when the screenwriter doesn’t try to hide it. (Think George Lucas’s scrolling text intro, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …” at the beginning of Star Wars.) As a rule, though, backstory is cleverly weaved into the narrative so we pick it up a bit at a time and piece it together.
Telling is easier for fiction writers, and can be a powerful tool in deft hands. We use it to drop in backstory, or introduce any background information about events, settings, or characters. It’s one of the things fiction does well. But we run into problems when we use telling where showing would better serve the story.
Writing Hack for Detecting Showing Versus Telling
Telling is great for giving the big picture. But more often, we want to get up close and personal with our characters and settings. We want to draw the reader in and evoke an experience, not just dictate it. We want to engage the senses. To detect problems with telling, try the screen test—ask yourself if what you’re describing is something you could experience in a movie, something the camera or microphones would record.
In a movie, we’d find it awfully strange if, whenever a character felt something, a narrator popped in to say something like, “Jane felt calm.” (A few rare and wonderful movies such as Amelie have used this sort of narration as a device, but they’re exceptions, not the rule.)
Ask: Am I narrating? If you are, decide whether or not narrating is what your story needs. If you’d be better off showing, make an adjustment.
Repair telling by asking yourself how a movie would bring this important detail, Jane’s preternatural calmness, to life without anyone having to tell you what Jane is feeling. That’s one sure way to make sure you’re not telling when you mean to be showing.
The camera needs to see a calm Jane. What does that look like?
Jane closed her eyes. A beatific smile spread across her sun-warmed face, and the smile seemed to grow with each measured breath.
Showing is fun. It allows you to close your own eyes, imagine something, and smile a beatific smile as you flex your writing muscles and evoke an experience for your reader.
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