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Show, Don't Tell.

Sure, but what does it actually mean?

By Shane DobbiePublished 11 months ago Updated 11 months ago 6 min read
Top Story - April 2023
79

Show, don’t Tell! Anyone who fancies themselves a writer will have been told this at some point. It’s writing 101. Most of you will be nodding along to this thinking, “Listen up, Noobs, man’s about to throw down some classic advice.”

But, here’s the thing, even established writers out there, have you ever thought about what it really means? I feel like a lot of people misinterpret it as ‘giving readers lots of description’ but it’s not really that, and I’ll try and explain myself in a moment because I think we can look at it two different ways: Big Picture and Small Picture. Both are equally noteworthy but let's start BIG.

If we apply 'Show, Don’t Tell' to our story as a whole (I’ll call this the Big Picture) it’s a little easier to understand. We want to Show the reader our story, not Tell them about it. I’ve seen the odd example around Vocal but since it’s mostly a beginner writer mistake it doesn’t crop up often. Let’s take ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ as an example:

Jack is a young boy who lives with his mother. They’re poor. Jack has to sell their only cow for food. He takes it to the market but, on the way, he meets a stranger who offers to buy the cow in exchange for a magic bean. Jack takes the bean and returns home. His mother is angry and throws the bean away. The bean grows overnight into a huge beanstalk. It reaches up to the clouds. Jack climbs up and finds a giants house. He sneaks in and steals a golden egg, but the giant sees him and chases him. Jack climbs back down the beanstalk, chops it down and lives happily ever after selling the egg.

That’s quite an extreme example of ‘Telling’ a story but I’ve seen enough variations of this that I wanted to mention it. It’s where writers mistake 'telling' us all the exciting things that happen in their story rather than 'showing' us those things happening. I did a novel writing course just prior to Covid hitting and one of the writers on that course was guilty of this. The chapters they submitted to the group were basically an entire novel in bullet points - this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened etc. Each exciting incident - a paragraph in their story, was effectively a chapter in itself, or should have been. They had TOLD us the story of their characters, rather than SHOW us the story happening to the them; Just like I did with Jack and Co above.

Now, once we start showing our readers our story - actual chapters with characters doing and saying things - we get into the Small Picture, and this is where it gets interesting, and where we can get tripped up. Example:

Lucy entered the bar. She was tall and gorgeous. Long raven hair poured over her shoulders onto a red dress that clung to every curve. Long legs balanced perfectly on glossy black heels. Blue eyes sought out her boyfriend and she strode elegantly across to him.

A perfect example of showing the reader what a character looks like, right?

WRONG! 10 points deducted from Gryfinndor.

What if I told you that was a perfect example of telling! I, the writer, have just told you what a character looks like, and made myself look like a perv into the bargain. It’s also number 8 on Elmore Leonard’s Ten Writing Tips, all of which are gold:

1 Never open a book with weather.

2 Avoid prologues.

3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"…he admonished gravely.

5 Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6 Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9 Don't go into great detail describing places and things.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Let’s try Lucy’s introduction again but ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. We don’t really need to know exactly what she looks like unless it’s important to the story (Harry Potter’s scar for example) so we give the reader a few clues and let them put together an image for themselves. We want it to feel organic to the story, and to the characters. We want to convey that she’s tall, and very attractive; graceful maybe, looking for her boyfriend and she’s called Lucy.

She ducked under the door frame and entered the bar like a supermodel onto a catwalk. Every eye in the place turned to her; lustful; envious; in some cases both. She only had eyes for one person though and he was sat at the bar - the luckiest man in the room as far as most onlookers were concerned. He watched her in wonder, feeling like the luckiest man in the room. He didn’t know if it was the alcohol and/or tired eyes but he could swear that the spray-on red dress she was wearing lit up her surroundings as she moved. Then she was standing before him. She smiled, tucked a wave of raven black hair behind her ear, and leant down to kiss him.

“Hello, Lucy.” He said.

See the difference? We’ve achieved the same result (hopefully) but it now feels like the characters have done the work for us rather than the writer. We can break it down further to show my thinking - It’s probably not necessary but, if you’ve made it this far you might indulge me a moment longer.

She ducked under the door frame (She’s tall. Probably does it instinctively. This would be a character trait you might have explored) and entered the bar like a supermodel onto a catwalk (read: graceful). Every eye in the place turned to her; lustful; envious; in some cases both (she’s obviously attractive to everyone but we’ve let other people tell us this). She only had eyes for one person though and he was sat at the bar - the luckiest man in the room as far as most onlookers were concerned. He watched her in wonder, feeling like the luckiest man in the room, (again - character, character , character) He didn’t know if it was the alcohol and/or tired eyes but he could swear that the spray-on red dress she was wearing lit up her surroundings as she moved (not necessary really but adds a bit of colour). Then she was standing before him. She smiled, tucked a wave of raven black hair (for hair colour description fans) behind her ear, and leant down (height again) to kiss him.

“Hello, Lucy.” (We know her name now) He said.

And that, hopefully, makes more sense of Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t sweat this stuff though. That first character description I’d write in a first draft. It’s fine and it gets the words down and lets you get on with the story. To be honest, most readers probably don’t care, but you do, right? Do you want to be a great writer, or the (money aside) person who wrote 50 Shades of Grey?

Anyway, I hope this has been, or will be, helpful to you. I know it helped me to have it explained. Most of you will already know this, but if even one of you has just had a lightbulb pop over your head then it’s been worth me writing it.

Read you later, Folks.

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About the Creator

Shane Dobbie

If writing is a performance art then I’m tap dancing in wellies.

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Comments (32)

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  • Phil Flannery9 months ago

    Thanks Shane, I am guilty of telling. It's a simple enough trap to fall into.

  • This is my favorite topic when it comes to writing and something you have to constantly remind yourself of. Enjoyed your perspective on this and great advice

  • Farhan Mirza 10 months ago

    loved it

  • Lamar Wiggins11 months ago

    This was very helpful, Shane. I been working to improve on that aspect of writing fiction. Finding the balance can be a struggle. Too much versus not enough. And I agree that the word ‘then’ can get overused very quickly. Thanks again and congrats.

  • Leslie Writes11 months ago

    Very helpful nuts and bolts instruction. Also, I've been hearing I should read this Elmore Leonard guy. I am not as well read as I probably should be as a writer LOL. I did read Stephen King's book on writing and he had some overlapping advice. Great article and congrats on the top story!

  • Very well put. Your version of the Lucy story is certainly much more rewarding to the reader. I reckon the Elmore Leonard writing tips are somewhat a matter of opinion though, and some would come in and go out of fashion over the years, and would matter more or less, depending on your story, your writing style, and the audience you're writing for.

  • L.C. Schäfer11 months ago

    I feel like I need to have this beside me while I go back over my old stories in the most brutal way possible 😁

  • J. S. Wade11 months ago

    Great primer Shane. Well conveyed. Congrats on Top Story! 🥇

  • C. H. Richard11 months ago

    Great examples on showing a story. I'm not sure I agree on exclamation points!!! Lol - but well written. Congratulations on Top story too.

  • R. J. Rani11 months ago

    Brilliantly broken down, Shane! Thanks for this. I feel that your explanations belong right up there beside Randy Ingermanson (who teaches the ‘snowflake method’ of novel writing). Bravo 👏

  • Mohammed Darasi11 months ago

    Great article! I like how you broke down the "show don't tell" because I sometimes think writers give too much description that it ruins the imagination for me as a reader. I love books and stories when they give you just enough info that you can infer the rest on your own.. different people can almost have a subjective experience when reading it.. I think I do try to do what you said subconsciously, but it's nice seeing it broken down like this, and I'll try to be more mindful of it when writing. I read an article about paragraphs on vocal recently (Stephanie who wrote it actually commented on here as well) and I find these articles really helpful, so thank you 😊

  • Zuhaib Shaukat 11 months ago

    Nice

  • Consumer Chronicles11 months ago

    The article uses a brief example to illustrate the concept of "Show, Don't Tell" in writing. The author highlights how including details such as the color of the dress, the woman's hair color, and her movements can help the reader to visualize the scene and characters. Furthermore, the use of dialogue not only reveals the woman's name but also adds an extra layer to the story. The article also encourages writers not to worry too much about perfecting every detail in their first drafts, as the priority should be getting the words down and moving the story forward. However, the article also emphasizes the importance of incorporating sensory details and engaging the reader's imagination in order to create a more immersive and engaging story. Overall, the article is concise but effective in its explanation of "Show, Don't Tell." It provides a simple example that demonstrates the concept in action and offers practical advice for writers who want to improve their writing skills. The author's friendly and relatable tone makes this a valuable resource For writers of all levels

  • Kendall Defoe 11 months ago

    Not a bad introduction and explanation to the concept. It can be very hard to fall into the 'Telling' trap. And I think Elmore Leonard is one of the more underrated talents who should be read and respected! Good job, and congrats on the Top Story! ;)

  • Brannan K.11 months ago

    I'm gonna act like this wasn't the epilogue to our previous conversation and just say thank you, haha! Fair assessment! Now for application!

  • Judey Kalchik 11 months ago

    Well done, you! You are correct- when the writer TELLS a woman’s body it feels a cross between an auction and a major I k!

  • Awesome ✨ 🎉💯📝Congratulations on your Top Story❗❗❗

  • I was prematurely going to say this was a Top Story. So I'm glad it only took about an hour for me to come back and officially say, Congratulations on your Top Story!

  • Loryne Andawey11 months ago

    Oh the shade against 50 Shades of Grey! That part made me way too happy. I also agree with the points laid out. Showing and Telling have their places in writing and it is a balance we need to manage. Thank you for providing Elmore Leonard's tips too! Well done!

  • Thavien Yliaster11 months ago

    Out of the ten rules, I agree with rule 7. It feels like the other 9 are meant to be there for satire. Though when it comes to rule number 1, most people tend to think of weather for when they start out. I guess it's just a classic writing trope. Besides, when You showed instead told I could've sworn You broke rules 8 & 9. Whether its the author/narrator, other characters within the story, etc. When I used to write a fan fiction series a while ago, I wouldn't start the chapter with a characters name when introducing a new character and the story from their perspective. I would let pieces fall into place like little clues, and then maybe somebody would speak to them, hence how we get the name. Major fan of Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire." Money aside, when it comes to the person who wrote "Fifty Shades of Grey" there was no initial advertising of that book. It was popular by being spread around by word of mouth. It even got translated into several different languages because of its popularity. You could just chock it up to "sex sells," but what else is there behind the writing that made that story so successful amongst its audience? Think about it, it reached a lot more people in a shorter period of time than most major MLMs have (and some of the biggest ones are half-a-century old). Peace.

  • J.M. Powell11 months ago

    I would love to see more fiction writing advice from you. Thank you for writing this.

  • So worth reading for me! I know this is how it is done but that doesn't mean I do this correctly or consistently. I am very visual and it helps so much! I can definitely "read" the difference. Thank you for sharing the 10 tips too. I thought you would want to vary your dialogue verbs. Who knew?

  • Benedetta Mancusi 11 months ago

    I talked about this with my writing group earlier today! It’s tricky, but so important to keep in mind. Thanks for sharing!

  • Dana Crandell11 months ago

    A very helpful reminder. Congratulations on the Top Story!

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