Show, Don’t Tell: A Practical Take

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If you had a nickel for every time you’ve heard the admonition to “show, don’t tell,” I bet you’d be able to quit your day job and become a full-time writer, huh?

But all too often, the folks who give that advice fail to go deeper, to talk about what you’re supposed to be showing, exactly, and what it’s ok to just tell. So, given this vague advice, many writers find ourselves resorting to adjectives—lots of adjectives—to describe everything on the page in great detail. But the result is often clunky, resulting in prose that looks more like the set directions for a movie script than a moving scene in a novel.

When we think about “show, don’t tell,” it’s far more effective to think about showing through action and interaction rather than through description.

Let’s take a worn-out couch and a nervous character, for example:

You could tell us about it like this: Sophie sat on the worn-out couch. She was nervous.

Or you could show us this way: Sophie’s face was pale and her eyes darted back and forth as she sat on the ripped cushion of the saggy leather couch.

And that’s a little better—at leas we have a little more visual information to work with. But what if, instead of simply describing what the scene looks like, we could show readers through the characters’ behavior? 

Sophie perched on the edge of the couch, crossing and uncrossing her legs and picking at a bit of stuffing that had poked through one of the many tears in the faded leather.  

See what happened there? That last iteration gave readers the same information, but rather than relying exclusively on adjectives to clue readers in, we did it through specific actions. Imagining Sophie crossing and uncrossing her legs, “watching” her pick at the torn-up couch, readers can start to feel her anxiety, rather than simply read about it.

Here’s another one: 

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Sure, we know the fox is fast and the dog is lazy, but are you moved? I’m not. Can you feel the fox’s energy or the pup’s ambivalence? I can’t.

So let’s try a rewrite: As the fox darted around the yard, spinning around tree trunks and leaping over bushes, the only sign the dog gave that he was even aware of the chaos was a sigh as the little critter flew right over his head.

Again, this rewrite conveys the same information in a much more interesting way by detailing the way the characters interact with one another and their environment—not just how things look.

See how this works? As authors, we can’t get around telling. We’re writing for the page, after all, and not the screen. But it’s the way we tell readers things that matters. “He loved her” gets the point across, but when we say it bluntly like that, with no action and no specificity and no detail that’s unique to these particular characters’ particular love, we fail to evoke any sort of empathy from our readers. If, instead, you show he loves her through his actions (perhaps he walks six miles a day to see her while she’s sick, or he brings home a handful of dandelions instead of the traditional roses because he knows how much she likes to wish on the seeds).

Same goes for any emotion. If you’ve got an angry character, don’t just say he’s angry. Instead, consider taking a page from The Godfather and having him leave a severed horse head in somebody’s bed. It’s a lot more powerful that way, isn’t it?

It’s your turn!

Practice showing, rather than telling, with an assignment I like to borrow from playwriting class I took in college: Write an “I Love You” scene, in which one character expresses his or her love for another (romantic, familial, whatever kind of love). The catch is, you’re not allowed to use the word “love” or any of its synonyms. As the narrator, it’s your job to help the character show, rather than explain, his or her feelings.

I’d love to read what you wrote! Shoot me an e-mail, or drop your scene in the comments below!