Show Don’t Tell.
This is a term you have heard many times and you surely will hear millions of times again.
But do you really know what “Show, Don’t Tell” means?
Well if not then you are not alone.
That’s why you are reading this post because you are curious and that’s why I will answer what this ghost term “Show, Don’t Tell” means.
But before that, I will answer a few questions.
Table of Contents
What Does Show Don’t Tell Mean?
“Show, Don’t Tell” is popular in creative writing which encourages more sensory details which allows your reader to hear, taste, feel the same thing as your character in the story.
In simple words, it is a technique allowing the character of the story to relate to sensory details rather than words.
Show, Don’t Tell is a writing technique that allows your readers to be “in the room” with the character and in the story.
Let’s understand this with an example.
Showing: He switched off the lights and left the room. His girlfriend becomes tense and worried of what will happen next. She buried herself under the blanket.
Telling: His girlfriend is afraid of the dark.
So in the showing example instead of just writing that his girlfriend is afraid of the dark, you showed the details like as soon as “he switched off the lights she buried herself under the blanket”.
So you are making sure that your readers understand the story through the scene instead of directly telling them.
Importance of Show, Don’t Tell
Learning how to show don’t tell in writing is one of the most difficult and most important parts of writing especially if you want to become a successful writer.
It is also important if you want to be noticed by renowned publishers and agents.
Showing rather than telling is what gives your readers the true attachment to your story.
The idea of showing rather than telling is the one thing that most new authors don’t care about, and it is the one most important aspect of storytelling.
Show don’t tell is not a new concept and it has been in trend for a long time
Almost all successful authors use the show don’t tell concept.
You might be thinking that telling is much quicker than showing but showing will make sure that your story is as descriptive as possible and it draws your reader’s narrative with immersive description.
So now it’s your turn to do the same.
Show Don’t Tell Tips
Since now you know the importance of Show Don’t Tell, but how can you practically implement Show Don’t Tell in real-life writing.
So here are some practical tips of using Show Don’t Tell in your writing.
1. Describe Sense of setting
One of the best and easiest ways to show rather than tell is by creating a sense of the setting.
You can create a sense of setting by describing how your character is feeling and how your character is sensing its surroundings.
Showing is largely allowing your readers to go through the same circumstances as your characters are going through without directly telling your readers.
For Example: Instead of saying “Sam hated the place”. You can show the emotion and scene of the surrounding. Like,
“There was a foul smell coming from all over the place and he is feeling his nostrils burn. He was feeling sick by imagining that he has to eat in such a shitty place.”
Now it will make your readers understand what your characters are feeling and it also helps you as a writer to give a proper description of the surrounding.
2. Use Strong Details
As I have mentioned you should use a sense of setting that doesn’t mean that you should overdo it.
You should only include strong details that describe the sense as well as stick to the story and characters.
Writing strong, vivid details are crucial for showing but if you include too many details it will become “telling” and it can cause your readers to lose interest in the main part of the story.
Strike the right balance between both of them as it is a crucial part of writing.
Overdoing: The ornament felt rough, its aged covered with dust and grime as I weighed, seeing its jagged cracks and brown-colored hue.
Right Way: It was rougher than it looked. Some of the brown façade crumbled in my hand as I picked it up.
3. Use of dialogue
In addition to setting up the scene, you can also use dialogue to show your readers the elements beyond the conversation.
Your readers can imagine the character’s background and their expressions and emotions through the dialogue you write.
Even some minor details in the dialogue like how your characters respond to someone, are they funny, are their replies formal, do they use slangs, etc, can make your readers understand what characters they are interacting with.
So with proper dialogue use can show your readers without directly telling them about your character.
4. Use Body language
You can use your character’s action to show your readers what you want to describe rather than telling everything.
As an author and writer, you want your audience to feel what you were trying to convey.
And sometimes it is really guesswork for your readers. You have to trust your audience’s observation that they will understand with the body language of characters.
If you can use body language properly then you can Show Don’t Tell.
5. Avoid Sensory words
Some words like falling, heard, told, smelled, etc are very weak words and these are the “telling” words and phrases.
These are some of the common types of words that you should try to avoid as much as possible.
Instead, you should use strong verbs and actions/emotions to describe the scene.
Telling: I felt a chill of ease run down my spine.
Showing: Use words like chills, breeze, goosebumps, etc instead of “I felt”.
6. Avoid Emotion Expressing words
Words like happy, sad, excited, love, etc are great words to describe what a person is feeling about.
But they are also unexciting.
These words sometimes tend to “tell” the reader directly and thus ruining the excitement of the readers.
So if you need your readers to stay in the flow of excitement then you should “show” them by various means as mentioned above without even using these emotional words.
Remember this might be tricky and it is not 100% of the time that you should avoid using emotional words, rather use it according to your story or writing.
And if you can do so then it will make showing versus telling so much easier.
7. Practice Showing not telling in your writing
Finally, I want to convey to you that it takes a lot of practice to master the art of show don’t tell.
In order to master show don’t tell you to need to practice writing daily, which I say is the most important characteristic of a writer.
By practicing writing using this technique, you will understand when to show and when to tell.
And this, in turn, will give your readers the most amazing reading experience.
Show Don’t Tell Examples
Now you know what is show don’t tell and the tips on how to use show don’t tell technique in your writing.
To make it easier to understand let’s take a few examples.
Show Don’t Tell Example #1
Telling: His girlfriend is afraid of the dark.
Showing: He switched off the lights and left the room. His girlfriend becomes tense and worried about what will happen next. She buried herself under the blanket.
Show Don’t Tell Example #2
Telling: Sam hated the place.
Showing: There was a foul smell coming from all over the place and he is feeling that his nostrils will burn. He was feeling sick by imagining he has to eat in such a shitty place.
Show Don’t Tell Example #3
Telling: When she hugged him she immediately smelt that her son was smoking again and she became scared.
Showing: As soon as she wrapped her arms around him, the smell of drugs and tobacco enveloped her, and she become afraid that she might lose her son again.
Show Don’t Tell Example #4
An amazing example of Show Don’t Tell in Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother.Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”
“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.
“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”
“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
Show Don’t Tell Example #5
Telling: I had a great conversation with Sam over dinner and loved the way he expresses all of his stories.
Showing: I barely touched any food and listened to all of his amazing stories until our food became cold.
Find Balance Between Show, Don’t Tell
Finding the right balance between show don’t tell is very important.
As I mentioned earlier, you will know when to tell vs when to show after you practice using this technique in your story.
Now if your story demands immediate response then telling is the best way to go as you can cut unnecessary details. Whereas if the story demands description then showing is the best way to go.
The main objective you should have in mind is that you should not bore your readers.
Finally, I want to say that there is no hard and fast rule in writing and every individual and every story is unique in its own way and no general rule applies to everyone.
If you have an audience base who loves immediate responses or you are writing nonfiction the telling is the best way.
In the end, you have to know your writing style and understand what your audience loves more.
In either case, you have to give show don’t tell a try and see what response you get from your audience.