Show, don’t tell.
It’s the first rule of writing, and for good reason.
In a nutshell, showing is about using description and action to help the reader experience the story. Telling is when the author summarizes or uses exposition to simply tell the reader what is happening.
John was sad to see his girlfriend leave.
John wiped tears down his face as he watched his girlfriend board the plane.
Here’s a longer example:
The house was creepy.
Only a single dim candle lit the room. The house smelled like dust and rotting wood, and something faintly metallic that made John think of blood. Stuffed animals were mounted around the room: a wild-eyed buck, a grizzly frozen in fury, a screech owl with sharp yellow talons.
In both examples, showing makes the writing vivid and more descriptive. Showing also helps readers experience the story by allowing them to interpret the descriptions of places, actions, and scenes.
Telling, on the other hand, is flat and boring and limits the experience for the reader. It also tells editors and agents you’re an amateur. After all, if the very first rule of writing is show, don’t tell, then telling says you don’t know the first thing about writing.
So how do you turn a tell into a show? Here are four great strategies:
- Use strong verbs: Don’t use walk if you can say gallop, skip, saunter, stroll or amble.
- Use specific nouns and clear adjectives in descriptions that paint a picture for the reader. Don’t just tell us Grandma baked a pie; say a cinnamon-apple pie with a golden crust rested on the windowsill above the sink.
- Include sensory details—describe how something sees, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels
- Use dialogue: ‘“Don’t you walk out of here!” Mom yelled’ is better than Mom was angry.
The exception to the rule
Contrary to popular belief, there are times when telling may be better than showing—namely, when describing how a character thinks or feels, otherwise known as internal narrative.
Internal narrative is the private monologue that makes readers feel as though we’re inside a character’s head, privy to thoughts and feelings the character doesn’t necessarily express out loud or through his actions. Internal narrative is essential because it helps us understand exactly what makes a character tick—his fears, his motivations, his secret dreams. Getting to walk around in a character’s head for a while is one of the best parts about reading, and you’re depriving your reader of that pleasure if you don’t have clear, detailed internal narrative.
Telling is sometimes a better strategy than showing when it comes to writing internal narrative.
Here’s why: Showing relies on a character’s actions.
“He shoved back his chair and slammed his fist against the table.”
This might show us that a character is angry, but we have no idea what he’s actually thinking. Maybe he’s not really angry, but scared. Or maybe he’s secretly thrilled but is pretending to be outraged. We don’t know unless you tell us.
Yes, in nine cases out of ten, it’s infinitely preferable to show John is angry by describing the way his fist hit the table or how hard he slammed the door on his way out of the room. But sometimes, you just need to tell it like it is.
Related areas to look for in your manuscript:
If AutoCrit finds that you tend to tell instead of show, you may be guilty of several similar writer gaffes, such as using too many adverbs, relying on generic descriptions, or writing weak dialogue. All three of these writing styles are forms of telling that will put your reader to sleep. Never fear: AutoCrit can help you spot those pitfalls too, so you can keep your prose—and your reader—energized.
The bottom line
Showing versus telling is the essence of good storytelling. In 99 percent of cases, it’s better to show.