What It Means to Show Rather Than Tell in Writing (and How to Do It)

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If writing advice had a Top 10 Hits list, “show, don’t tell” likely would rank #1 pretty dang easily. We’ve heard it a million times, we know we ought to do it, but what the bleeping hades does it MEAN?

From a technical standpoint, showing rather than telling in writing basically means you do anything and everything not to just lay out the facts. Your goal is to write something that will allow the reader to infer what is taking place or true, rather than to offer blunt narration.

Let’s look at some examples.

Example #1:

Bad: She kissed him squarely on the lips. But she was still angry. 

Good: Her lips found that beautiful meaty point of his, feeling the awkward moist warmth of his own. Her hands, however, stayed clenched. How could he possibly expect forgiveness after what he had done?

How do I know the kiss was square? Because the kiss is on the “meaty point”. I know how the kiss feels now, too. I never say I’m angry, yet clenched fists signal that all is not well.

Example #2:

Bad: Working with Janet taught me how to be brave.

Good: As I watched Janet take on impossible projects with warm coffee cup in hand, do cold call after cold call without missing a beat and laugh with investors as if millions of dollars weren’t on the line, my toes curled a little more with excitement every day. I stood taller. I talked more. And suddenly I wasn’t afraid.

Here, it’s not the activities Janet does that are particularly important. It’s the casual, calm and relaxed manner in which she does them. You get a physical response from the individual that confirms the transformation happening internally.

Now, one obvious difference between the bad and good points is that the bad points are much more succinct. This brevity has its place, and inference doesn’t have to take paragraphs, as Ernest Hemingway proves. But generally, showing means adding details so that the reader gets a mental picture, imagery around the point. So the basic rule is, paint a clear picture, but don’t make so many brush strokes that your arm gets tired.

Showing rather than telling through artful inference means that you have to pay close attention to all the learned interpersonal, social and cultural cues that run rampant, as well as your senses and feelings. You have to ask yourself what particular tones and physical gestures mean and understand that even little things–like pulling out a particular brand of mascara, for example–can have significance. And it’s important to truly know your audience well when you write, because the same cue might mean different things to different groups, which can influence how well they understand and connect to your message. Ideally, try to be as inclusive as you can, since that means more people will get the story. At the very least, consider the possible interpretations and take care to craft the “show” in a way that likely will give the least offense.

If you want to try your hand at showing rather than telling, start by rejecting your first, default option. Ask yourself

  • How can I describe the action rather than simply leaning on specific verbs?
  • What do I want the reader to know about the characters or plot from what I’m describing?
  • What biases are at the heart of the description, if any? Under what circumstances would those biases fall apart?

It’s also important to keep in mind that blunt, tell-it-like-it-is communication still works great for your outline. Summarize with no flash first and then go back to flesh out your work.

Showing rather than telling is the hallmark of good storytelling, whether you’re writing a novel or aiming to give an inspiring speech to this year’s graduates. If you want what you have to say to stand out, don’t let the technique go to waste.

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