Show Don’t Tell

Show don’t tell. It’s almost a staple in writing advice. You’ll probably come across it in every writing advice list or series you read. From the Writing Desk isn’t strictly a writing advice series, though I have talk about advice before, so I don’t want to feel left out by it.

But as I said, show don’t tell is an advice often repeated, so I don’t really have anything new to add in terms of how to do it. A basic rundown is using dialogue, be more concrete in your descriptions, using metaphors and avoiding adverbs. Honestly, I’m not good at this. I need to wordsmith to achieve a good result. So, instead of telling you how to do “show don’t tell”, I’m going to talk about some of the reasons why we should choose to show instead of tell and when to tell instead of show. I feel like this is often overlook. When I first started writing, I found the advice often bandied about without knowing why I should do it.

1.) Engaging the Reader

The most important reason for showing instead of telling is to engage your reader. When you tell something in writing, you’re setting the tone and the emotions the reader should feel without their input on it. You’re forcing things down their throat without letting them have time to savor and digest it. “John shuts the door angrily” tells me that John is angry. “John slams the door” lets me infer from the context that John is angry. It’s a small difference, but it’s an important one.

2.) Vivid Imagery

Showing instead of telling also helps create a clearer picture of the scene. It’s not enough to tell someone that a place is beautiful, you have to create an image of a beautiful place in the person’s head. Instead of saying a palace is beautiful, maybe talk about the architecture, or the white marbled walls, talk about it overlooking the lands around it, the fields of vineyard and colorful bushes. And then let the reader draw the conclusion on its beauty. An interesting thing to do is to describe a beautiful place and then have a character say that it is only okay, to either create an unreliable narrator or to compare it to the beauty of some mysterious far off place that might not be described in the story.

3.) Getting emotions through

Showing instead of telling is also able to get emotions through much more clearly. For example, if a character is panicking, you can describe what he’s feeling. The things he are seeing, his heartbeat racing, visions blurring instead of just saying he is panicking. It will allow readers to better insert them into the shoes of the characters.

Show don’t tell while a good rule in most situations is not the be all end all of writing. There are times when you would want to just tell instead of show. Here are some examples of when you might want to tell instead of show.

1.) Speeding through a scene

One of the biggest reasons to tell instead of show is to speed through a scene. It could be an unimportant scene, or just a scene you want to get through quickly. Something that needs paragraphs to show can sometimes be told in a single paragraph. Sometimes Chris went to the market is better than writing an entire scene about Chris going to the market.

2.) When the details aren’t unnecessary

Showing tends to create more words, and sometimes there can be too much words in describing a scene. Sometimes it is enough to say that “Jack is mad”, especially when Jack is just a side character. Showing too much can bog down the pace of the story, so make sure to keep the big picture in mind.

One extra thing I would like to mention is that newer writers, such as myself, tend to have the habit of showing and then ending with a tell, or vice versa. So when you’re editing your novel, try to spot them. If you find one, remove one of them. If you think your show portion is not enough for the reader to infer, either you’re not giving your readers enough credit, or you need to improve on it. Try letting some friends read it to see if they feel what you want them to feel.

So to summarize, instead of following the rule “Show Don’t tell” blindly, try instead to learn when to show and when to tell. Showing allows you to create stronger, more engaging scenes. Telling gets the information to the reader quickly, but in huge chunks can be boring.

“What you want is a writer’s telescope, so you can increase or decrease the magnification: increase to show, decrease to tell.”

– Gail Carson Levine

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