How to “Show Don’t Tell” in Writing

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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.

Two examples of “show, don’t tell”

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 you know the kiss was square? Because the kiss is on the “meaty point”. You know how the kiss feels now, too. The author never says “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: I watched Janet take on impossible projects with a warm coffee cup in hand. She did cold call after cold call without missing a beat. She laughed with investors as if millions of dollars weren’t on the line. And 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 confirming the internal transformation.

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 imagery around the point. So paint a clear picture, but don’t make so many brushstrokes that your arm gets tired.

“Show, don’t tell” is all about observation

Showing rather than telling through artful inference means that you have to pay close attention to learned interpersonal, social, and cultural cues. You also have to acknowledge 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. This connects to knowing your audience well when you write. 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. If you are, more people will comprehend and relate to 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.

Reject your default and lean on these three questions

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 or environment rather than simply leaning on specific verbs? (i.e., What evidence do I have that what I’m writing is true?)
  • 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 flesh out your work.

Showing rather than telling is the hallmark of good storytelling. If you want what you have to say to stand out, don’t let the technique go to waste.