Show, Don’t Tell. Yeah, that sounds easy, but what, exactly, does show mean?
Let’s look at an example:
Carey ate breakfast, then he took a shower and went to the store. At the store he met a girl and they talked for a long time. Carey liked her but she blew him off. Then he went home.
Tells you a lot about Carey, huh? Okay, so this example is really exaggerated, but it hits home the necessity of showing and not telling. What can we do to fix it? We need more detail, especially dialogue and action. Consider:
Carey studied the frozen dinners. He’d had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so Salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the Big Man’s or the regular?
A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he’d ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop.
“Hi,” she said, her voice rich and melodious.
Carey’s mouth didn’t work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character’s . . .
So now you have the idea. We need details. We need to know thoughts, feelings; we need to smell the perfume, taste the wine, feel the cashmere. Anything less cheats the reader from experiencing our imaginary world.
We also get into the “show, don’t tell” problem in less apparent ways. For example, in description. Mary was a pretty girl, with blue eyes and blond hair. This is telling. Consider showing her beautiful qualities: Mary’s blue eyes glistened with joy, her blond hair bouncing with each step.
Instead of saying Molly is a wonderful person, say Molly is always there when anyone needs her. She’s the first to arrive with a casserole when someone is sick, the first to send a note of encouragement to those who are troubled, the first to offer a hug to anyone, man, woman or child at anytime.
Instead of saying Sam is a talented musician, let us hear the crowds cheer, let us feel his passion. Take us into his head as he strokes the piano keys:
Consummation of the soul. That’s what Sam called the gratification he received from music. When his passion became so intense it begged for satisfaction, pleaded for release, he was helpless to resist its urges. When his fingers assumed a life of their own, titillating the ivory keys with the complex music of Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, and he became one with the cadence, breathing with the crescendos, his fingers caressing the melody, until everything else faded, everything else disappeared, and only the music existed.
Dialogue is another area where we have the opportunity to show or to tell. “I love you,” she crooned. Creative dialogue tags like crooned cheat your reader. It tells your readers what your dialogue should show them. Let the power of your dialogue and the accompanying action show your reader the tone of voice and the emotion, don’t tell them. Consider: “I love you,” she said, her voice smooth as her fingers massaged him.
You can’t tell us someone is a wonderful person, a talented musician or a spoiled child. We won’t believe you. You must show us. Throughout your manuscript, look for any opportunity to show us in real time, to act out, to let us feel. The difference will amaze you.
At Inspiration for Writers, we transform your manuscript from telling to showing with our Editorial Services. Find out how our editing can help you with your writing career.
For additional tips, worksheets, and discussions, order your own copy of the The Plain English Writer’s Workbook.
All rights reserved. You may reproduce this article for educational purposes like writing workshops as long you distribute our copyright notice and our URL (inspirationforwriters.com) with each page.
For use in conferences, websites, blogs or other uses not mentioned here, please contact us.