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ServiceScape Incorporated

Show, Don't Tell: The Secret to Next-Level Writing

A distinguishing characteristic of a great writer is one who is able to show instead of tell in his or her writing. For example, when you tell your audience information about a character, you might describe the character as tall or imposing. However, when you show your reader this information—by having another character look up to them when speaking—you allow your reader to feel like they are right there in the moment in ways that telling them details will never inspire.

British novelist, poet, and essayist C.S. Lewis put it like this:

Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was 'terrible,' describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was 'delightful'; make us say 'delightful' when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, 'Please, will you do my job for me?'

C.S. Lewis

Why show instead of tell?

There are several reasons why it's more appealing for a reader to be shown a scene rather than told a scene. Telling involves providing factual, brief information that avoids detail and conveys a broad message. In many cases, it is an effective way to communicate but not necessarily an effective way to stir the emotions.

Showing, on the other hand does stir the emotions because it appeals to the reader's sensory perception and understanding. While it's not the most efficient way to communicate, it is the most expressive way, and provides details that telling does not offer. It also encourages a reader's suspension of disbelief by allowing them to "be" in the moment you're showing in your writing, through sensory details they can easily access with a little imagination.

Examples of Telling vs. Showing

So how do you accomplish this in your own writing? Let's look at a few examples of how one might show instead of tell.

Telling: He was cold.
Showing: He shivered violently, wrapping the blanket around his shoulders.

Telling: A storm was blowing in.
Showing: To the west, dark clouds shifted as thunder rumbled in the distance, drawing closer.

Telling: She knew he had been drinking alcohol.
Showing: As he brushed past her stumbling, she smelled the stale scent of whiskey.

Is it ever better to tell instead of show?

While this "show, don't tell" rule holds true in general for creative writing, there are times when a summary of what is taking place is best—especially if it is a summary of plot details that aren't of real value on the character arc. In other words, if you are merely biding time to move a character from point a to point b and the important things will happen at point b, there is no need to focus on showing details of how the character arrives to point b. That part can be more telling than showing, especially in contrast to the showing writing that you would want to have when the character finally reaches that important destination (point b).

Consider a character who must take part in an ultimate showdown against the antagonist. When that showdown occurs, you would obviously want to make your writing show as much as possible instead of telling it all. However, the journey to get to that showdown might not necessarily need to be shown, unless it is an important part of the plot (as is often the case in adventure novels). If it doesn't add value to the narrative or character arcs, there is no need to focus on showing instead of telling.

Tips to stop telling

So how to you avoid telling writing when you should be showing your reader instead? Obviously, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this. However, here are a few tips to follow to get you started in the right direction:

Consider all the senses

Writing that shows a reader what is happening is writing that includes a lot of sensory details. Don't just use images that your characters sees, but also include what is heard, felt, smelled and tasted through their senses. These types of sensory details help your reader feel like they are in the moment with the character instead of simply being told what is happening.

Find adjectives and reconsider them

Another great way to turn your telling writing into writing that shows your reader a scene is to look for the spots where you've used adjectives. For example, let's say you've written the line: "The beautiful woman smiled at him." Since beautiful is an adjective, let's take a moment to reconsider this sentence to allow it to show instead of tell. After doing so, you might come up with something like this: "All she did was smile but to him, it was his own private heaven. Women like her didn't smile at him often and his face flushed warm red in the heat of her stare."

Avoid overuse of -ly adverbs

Stephen King had much to say about adverbs:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one in your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's — GASP!! — too late.

Stephen King

What King is trying to emphasize in this statement is that one or two adverbs are fine, but the more adverbs a piece of writing contains, the less it will "show" instead of "tell." For example, consider the following line: "He looked at his father angrily." How might a writer state the same idea without the adverb? It would be something like this: "A frown wrinkled his forehead as he stared at his father, breathing hard and clenching his fists in buried hostility."

Now, which of the sentences gives us more visual depth to the scene? Obviously, it's the one without the adverb ending in -ly. In it, the reader sees the character's anger visually instead of simply being told about it. We see the character's emotions instead of being told how the character feels.

Use metaphors

One great benefit to using metaphors is they are a literary device that calls to mind sensory perceptions. For example, when you compare a character's smile to the sun through metaphor, your reader instantly envisions a smile that is bright and cheerful—one that lights up the room in a way similar to how the sun lights up the Earth. You give much more depth to your description through the use of metaphors and similes than telling writing could ever offer.

A final word

One thing to note in the struggle with showing instead of telling in your writing is that you can go overboard with description. For some writers (Anne Rice, for example), pages upon pages of descriptive writing work because their readers have come to expect it and enjoy that type of writing. However, with too much focus on description and not enough focus on moving the plot along, you risk losing your reader through overly done description that was written for the sake of showing instead of telling. So, remember—show, don't tell, but don't overdo it!

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