What the hell is ‘show not tell’?
One of the most quoted rules for writers is ‘show not tell’ – and I’ve yet to meet anyone who can say they stick to it without exception – come to think of it, I’m not sure any writer really knows what it means – after all, we’re passing ourselves off as story tellers, not story showers.
For some writers, ‘show not tell’ means throwing the focus on describing actions, events, and dialogue in a way that allows the reader to experience and visualize the story rather than simply being told what is happening. This means using vivid language and specific details to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, rather than simply stating facts or summarizing events. For example, instead of saying “she was angry,” a writer might describe the character’s facial expression, body language, and tone of voice to convey her emotions. This allows the reader to become more engaged in the story and create their own mental images, rather than being told what to think.
How to fix your tells
If a writer adds lots of description is that showing rather than telling?
Not necessarily. Adding a lot of description can be a form of ‘showing’, but it depends on the type of description. If the description is specific, sensory, and evocative, it can be considered ‘showing’. However, if the description is abstract, general, or simplistic, it may be considered a case of breaking the golden rule and ‘telling’. For example, if a writer describes a character’s emotions as “happy” or “sad”, it would be considered ‘telling’. However, if the writer describes the character’s facial expression, body language, and behaviour, it would be considered ‘showing’.
For me, “telling” is giving an impression or opinion of a character or a room or whatever without providing evidence to back up what you’re writing. Showing is quite the opposite, you provide all the evidence, and let the reader decide. Think of yourself as a real hot shot lawyer pleading with a hanging judge.
I’ve been back to my virtual assistant and asked them to write me a quiz about show not tell. See how you get on …
- True or false: ‘Show not tell’ is a writing technique that involves directly stating information to the reader.
False. ‘Show not tell’ involves using specific, descriptive details and actions to convey information to the reader, rather than simply stating it directly.
- Which of the following is an example of ‘showing’?
a. John was angry.
b. John clenched his fists and raised his voice.
b. The character clenched their fists and raised their voice. This description uses specific, sensory details to convey the character’s anger, rather than simply stating that they were angry.
- Which of the following is an example of ‘telling’?
a. Maria’s face flushed as she ducked her eyes.
b. Maria was embarrassed.
b. The character was embarrassed. This statement directly states the character’s emotion, rather than using descriptive details to show it.
- True or false: Adding a lot of description automatically means that the writing is ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’.
False. The type of description matters, not just the amount. If the description is specific, sensory, and evocative, it can be considered ‘showing’. However, if the description is abstract, general, or simplistic, it may be considered ‘telling’.
- True or false: ‘Showing’ allows the reader to experience the story and its characters more vividly than ‘telling’.
True. ‘Showing’ uses specific, descriptive details and actions to convey information to the reader, allowing them to experience the story and its characters more vividly. ‘Telling’ simply states information, which can be less engaging for the reader.