Why (and how) You Should “Show” Instead of “Tell” in Your Writing

blog- show dont tell

Here’s the deal: readers do not want writers to tell us how they feel or what a scene looks like. Readers want writers to show us how they feel and what the scene looks like. Lately, I’ve received many review requests from writers that tell more than they show, so I’d like to take this time to explain the difference.

I, too, had to learn the difference of telling vs. showing in my own writing. I wanted to summarize my feelings and tell the reader what was going on, and every single time I did so, my professors and writing mentors sent it back with the same comments, “Show me what this looks like. Let me imagine it on my own. Don’t downplay my intelligence as a reader.” That— the fact that writers basically tell readers they aren’t intelligent enough to come up with their own pictures in their heads— is the problem with telling. Writers, most of the time without realizing it, lack faith in their readers and then feel like they must tell the reader how the story goes. Stop it.

Now, I’m not saying that writers “tell” intentionally. They don’t, at least not at first. Showing is really difficult for some reason. Every writing blog has written about it. Every professor in the field of English has talked about it 519,686,753,198 times (probably more), and every writer has committed the crime. So what’s the difference between the two? How can you take your writing from telling to showing? Here are some tips:

1. It’s all in the detail

Give your reader the details in a scene. The more detail, the more they can “see” when they read. Here’s an example of telling:

“The moon is bright tonight.”

Short and sweet right? Well, it’s also boring and doesn’t give the reader a chance to paint a picture in their heads. Here’s how you show that the moon is bright:

“The white light from the moon blocked out the flickering stars and illuminated the rippled water in the lake.”

See what I did there? Instead of telling you that the moon was bright, I showed you what bright looked like in this particular scene. You can also do this when trying to convey emotion in your scene. Here’s the telling:

“She was sad when he left her.”

::Yawn:: Okay let’s try again:

“She clutched at her chest and squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to stop the involuntary tears as his silhouette disappeared into the night.”

Okay, this one might be a little melodramatic, but you get the point. Show your reader how feelings manifest in the physical sense. Let them feel it too.

2. For the love of all things, reread your work

No, really. But don’t just reread it for grammatical mistakes or tone. With every scene, ask yourself if you can “see” it. Ask yourself which sentences can be reworked to make it more show-y rather than tell-y. Did you really work hard on writing out a fight scene but then digress and tell the reader how the victor felt after he/she won? Fix up that part.

3. Practice, and then practice some more

Writing exercises, no matter where you are in your writing career, can help you improve. Yes, I am suggesting that all levels can improve. Head on over to Writer’s Digest, and pick out a few writing prompts, and get to it. The more you write, the easier it becomes (duh, we all know this and yet so few of us do it). The same is true for showing instead of telling. Anyone can write. Anyone can tell a reader what something looked or felt like, but can you show your reader?

Do you have any tips for showing vs, telling? Share them below!


Photo credit: flicker user julio.garciah

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