Show, Don’t Tell: An Introduction

Oh yes, that dreaded phrase: Show, don’t tell. We’ve all heard it. Some of us love it (I love it); some of us hate it. And if you’re a new writer, showing can be difficult.

I’m going to write a full series for this subject. I believe show, don’t tell is a lengthy topic that deserves a full explanation since so many new writers struggle with it.

Before I jump into this topic, I want to make something clear– Yes, you must show in your writing. However, you will and should NOT show 100% of the time.

When people tell you to show and not tell, what they mean is that you must show MORE than tell. The majority of your novel should be showing, though it’s alright to tell sometimes. There are times when it’s better to tell than show, and I will devote a post about that later.

 

Why You Should Show:
Telling doesn’t engage the reader. It’s passive and not interesting. Telling uses general and abstract language, and it makes your book boring.

Showing creates mental images for the reader and evokes the reader’s senses and emotions. It allows the reader to slip into your story and lets your story come to life. Readers like to feel they are involved with the characters and conflict.

I also like to believe that showing is like evidence. For example, a writer can tell us the protagonist is smart, but if we never see her act smart, then the telling is contradicting her behavior. And that’s not good.

 

Now let’s look at an example:

Example 1: “It was very windy.”
Okay, that was bland. Let’s see what happens when we show instead:

Example 2: “The winds blew children away and knocked down trees.”
Can you see the winds blowing children away and knocking down trees in your mind? The second example creates mental images for us and evokes our imagination. Overall, this example is much more engaging.

 

Biggest Key To Showing:
Specificity will help you master showing. When writers tell, they use general language and not enough specifics to create mental images. From my wind example, “it is windy” is a general statement. It is so general that it doesn’t create any mental images for me. However, the second example does. It uses specific language to show specific images.

There are many other ways to show it was windy.

Examples:
“The winds shook the houses.”
“He couldn’t take a step without the winds pushing him back.”
“The winds drowned out my screams.”

All of these examples have specific details. Specifics will make your writing strong, engaging, and interesting.

Action verbs will help you show instead of tell. You may have heard people advise you to limit yourself from using linking verbs (am, is, are, was, were). Linking verbs are general, not specific words. If you look at the examples above, I didn’t use any linking verbs. They’re all action.

 

Is It EVER Okay to Tell?
Yes. Like I said earlier, there are times when it is better to tell than show, and there is such a thing called good telling. However, you still should keep it to a minimum. Your goal is to show and not just tell.

 

Show, Don’t Tell Series:
Part 2- Show, Don’t Tell: Characterization and Personality
Part 3- Show, Don’t Tell: Emotions, Moods, and Reactions
Part 4- Show, Don’t Tell: Setting, Physical Traits, and Descriptions
Part 5- Show, Don’t Tell: Dialogue
Part 6- Show, Don’t Tell: Good Telling
Part 7- Show, Don’t Tell: Tell, Then Show

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