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.
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Zero grammar & spelling mistakes
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions