A Quick Primer on “Show, Don’t Tell” in Writing

Like most writing teachers, I’m constantly circling things in my students’ papers and writing “Show, don’t tell!” in the margin.

And then they say to me, oh-so-sweetly, “WTF do you mean by ‘show, don’t tell’ anyway?”

“Show, don’t tell” is a critique more often issued than explained. So let’s break that direction into easy bullets. When you show things to your readers rather than just tell them what happened, you bring so much more interest, action, and meaning to your writing.

First, I like to let loose some Chekhov on my students, in all his lyrical glory:

Chekhov quote

And my students say to me, “We still don’t get it!” And I’m all, “But I used that magical mirror effect on the picture and everything!”

So then I bring in a plain talker to help out. Enter Mark Twain:

mark twain quote

Let’s make an old lady scream. Rule number 1 of show, don’t tell? Make a scene.

How to Make an Old Lady Scream:

  1. Get Physical. Depict her actions. Is she clutching her throat? Tugging at her sleeves? Can you use hyperbole to exaggerate her behavior?
  2. Focus on the Voice. What does she sound like? Can you compare it to an animal? A train? Something otherworldly?
  3. Give Her a Line. The words she’s saying are as important as the fact that she’s shouting them.
  4. Describe Her Appearance. What does she look like? What is she wearing? What is her facial expression? Is she grimacing?
  5. Reveal Her Motivation. What is her mood? Frantic? Angry? Elated? There are so many reasons to scream. Is she excited? Scared? Surprised?
  6. Find a Reference. Is her scream reminiscent of “Psycho”? “Home Alone”? “The Scream” by Edvard Munch? Taylor Swift’s surprised face?
  7. Place Her in Context. How do others react to her screaming? What is her relationship to other characters or objects in the scene?

show don't tell primer image

But Wait! Don’t Go Overboard. You don’t have to show everything in your stories. Sometimes you just need to make a quick scene change, jump ahead in time, or focus on action over setting. Suppose you’re telling a story about getting hurt and ending up in the emergency room. We don’t need to know every step along the way – that you put on a coat, staggered down the stairs, hailed a cab, and entered the emergency room doors. Create a full-fledged scene around the injury, then take a shortcut and get to the next important scene in your story—when you arrive at the hospital.

Below are some rules of thumb on when showing improves your writing and when it can just bog it down.

When to Show:

  • Show to make the important things vivid.
  • Show when it is essential to resolve your conflict, develop your characters, describe setting, establish motivation, and advance your plot.

When Not To Show:

It’s okay to simply tell when you just need to get a move on already in your story. Don’t show:

  • Every single detail about setting
  • Quick jumps forward in the plot
  • Every step in a sequence
  • Transitions between scenes

Your turn! Try it out! The next time you write a personal story on your blog, figure out which scenes are essential to your plot or character development and flesh those out fully. Note where you can skip ahead with a quick transition instead. Bridge the gap between showing and telling and now you’ve got a story with just the right balance.

Want to learn a whole lot more about how to make your writing pop by showing versus telling? There’s still room in my fall class “30 Days to Your Best Blog Post Ever” — my creative nonfiction boot camp. Hurry! Click HERE to Register Now. Class starts Monday, October 19.



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