We hear it over and over: Show, don’t tell. You can’t get away from this advice, not in writing workshops, at conferences, or heck, even when visiting this blog. Writers Helping Writers and the thesaurus work we do is all about strengthening show, don’t tell skills.
There’s a good reason for this, though. Showing draws a reader in so they are more emotionally involved. Telling informs.
Often paired with “show, don’t tell” advice is the assertion that not all telling is bad. That’s also true. Telling is necessary, and acts as a balance to showing. If everything was shown, books would be 400,000 word monstrosities. And our readers? Asleep after twenty pages.
Does this means our stories should be equal parts showing and telling? Not by a long shot. In storytelling, showing is King.
The spirit of show, don’t tell is recognizing when a detail or moment is important, and then slowing things down briefly to describe it.
Now “slowing things down” doesn’t mean lazy, liquid writing – far from it. Adding sugary, fluffy words without purpose might pretty up a sentence, but it also slows the pace and weakens writing.
Think of words as currency–limited currency. If we only have so many words to work with, we become more careful about how we use them.
Being choosy is a good thing in writing. Is something important to the story? Will it add meaning and depth, reveal something about the characters, and enhances the reader’s experience? If so, it’s probably a detail to expand upon.
Show, Don’t Tell & Emotion
Most articles and workshops on show, don’t tell focus on emotion. It’s no wonder because emotion is one area where showing almost always trumps telling. After all, we want readers to feel part of what’s happening and connect with what a character is feeling, and it’s easier to do that through showing. Consider these:
Dee waited for Kirk to get home. She was furious. (Telling)
Dee paced the kitchen. She was as mad as Hell. (Weak showing + telling)
Dee lapped the kitchen table, crushing fistfuls of air and counting the minutes until she’d have something more solid to choke. Kirk was a dead man. (Showing.)
Showing engages. It involves. It can make readers feel like they are participating in the moment. That’s why scenes with emotions usually have a higher percentage of showing.
Show, don’t tell is something that we should always keep at the front of our mind as it forces us to think about the reader’s experience and how to make it better. And because we want to do more with less (word currency) we try harder to find the best words to describe something. When we become picky about our description and language, our writing improves!
Show, Don’t Tell & Setting
Setting is a powerful element in fiction. It can be used in so many ways: to help readers imagine the scene, infuse a moment with emotion and mood, foreshadow, create tension, characterize…. On and on it goes. Consider this:
Mary stopped on the sidewalk. The house in front of her was old and creepy. This couldn’t be the right place, could it? (Telling)
The house towered over Mary, blocking the sun and stealing warmth from the air. Peeling porch steps sagged and the shutters hung askew, like old bones barely able to hold together. Mary dug for the slip of paper Grandmother had given her. This must be the wrong address. Had to be. A cold tingle slid across her shoulders and she froze. Someone, or something, was watching. (Showing)
Showing usually requires more word count, which is why we want to think carefully about which details to include and which not to. I could have also described the scabby lawn and toppled flower pots, or even how the trees seemed to bend toward the house as if cradling its secrets. But it’s easy to get carried away, especially when you are trying to build atmosphere and mood. Choose powerful details that do the job and keep the writing tight.
Show, Don’t Tell & A Character’s Physical Features
Show, don’t tell isn’t always about using one over the other. It’s about using both effectively and challenging ourselves to do more with description. Consider:
Marcy pounded on her upstairs neighbor’s door, ready to lash into the jerk blasting his My dog died and my tractor left me country music at six AM. An old, blue-hair answered, shocking the words right out of Marcy. Not what she expected, not at all.
Marcy pounded on her upstairs neighbor’s door, ready to lash into the jerk blasting his My dog died and my tractor left me country music at six AM. A cherubic grandmother answered, white curls carefully coiffed and a flower-print apron circling her thick waist. “Good morning, dear.” Her smile was the equivalent of a warm cookie on a plate next to an inviting glass of milk.
I, uh, just wanted to introduce myself. Marcy.” She thrust out her hand. “I have the, you know, basement suite.”
Which one sets up the neighbor’s kindly personality and displays Marcy’s shock?
Does every character require thoughtful physical description? No. It’s really up to you to decide which characters are important enough to describe and to what degree, but when you do, challenge yourself to ditch generic details and instead choose ones that give readers insight into who the character is deep down, how they feel, or something else significant and interesting.
Make Each Word Earn the Right to Be Included
Thinking in terms of show don’t tell will make you a more effective storyteller because you get used to doing more with your description.
If you need help getting into this mindset, try One Stop for Writers’ descriptive thesaurus database. It’s the largest database of its kind and will help you brainstorm meaningful details to push the story forward and reveal your character’s deeper layers. If you like our thesaurus books, this database of ours is like that, only much, MUCH bigger!
Remember, the reader doesn’t need to know everything, only the important things. Whenever you’re not sure if you should show or tell, just think about what you the audience to get out of this moment. Do you have a point to make? Are you trying to show a character’s deeper emotions, hint at a traumatic past, or showcase how their flawed behavior is holding them back in life? If there’s something important you want readers to see, chances are you need to show.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.