The Difference Between Showing and Telling


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We hear it time and time again, in all the writing advice books and columns:

Show, don’t tell.

But sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially for new writers. So how do we identify the difference in our writing, and how can we spice up scenes to “show" the reader what we mean, rather than “tell" the reader? Let’s look at some examples…

Mary was spoiled rotten.

This is pure telling. How do we know she is spoiled? Why should we believe you?

Mary stomped her feet and screwed up her face as she wailed, “But I want the pony! You told me I could have whatever I wanted for my eighth birthday!"

Okay, much better. Here, we see Mary’s age, her behavior, and her demanding tone of voice. The author doesn’t need to tell us that Mary is spoiled. In fact, the author doesn’t use the word “spoiled" at all, yet we can figure it out easily enough through the child’s words and actions.

I was miserable after Edgar left me. All I thought about was him. All I dreamt about was him. I missed him so much that I thought I’d never be happy again.

Well, we get the general idea here that the narrator is sad. But all four sentences really say the same thing, and all four sentences tell much more than they show.

For a solid week after Edgar left, I didn’t get out of bed except to find more tissues to blow my nose and wipe away my tears. When I managed to sleep, I found myself in dreams with him, revisiting days long-gone when we ate dinner by candlelight and made love by moonlight. When I awoke alone, the agony that twisted my stomach inside out almost choked me. The telephone rang, and I ignored it. My mother stopped by with soup, and I told her to go away. The sun came up and went down again, and all I wanted to do was grab it by the throat and tell it to stop. If I couldn’t be happy, then time might as well stop altogether.

Notice that in the above revision, there is no one sentence that tells us the narrator is miserable. Rather, through her thoughts and actions, we deduce her feelings of despair. Trust that your reader is intelligent enough to figure this out.

Some Tips to Keep in Mind:

1. Use details that appeal to the five senses. Make the reader feel as if he or she is actually in the scene. Is your hero nervous because he’s just proposed to the heroine? Don’t tell us that. Instead, show us the weather outside, the taste of the food in the restaurant where they‘re eating, the texture of the suit he bought for the occasion, the quick pulse in his wrist as he waits for the heroine to make her decision.

2. Use dialogue. I’ve found this to be one of the best ways to get away from telling. When your characters speak for themselves, they naturally show us their temperament, opinion, even vocabulary level and method of communicating.

3. Use actions to show us the characters’ personalities. Have a neighbor who’s a busybody? Don’t tell us. Show us the ways in which she peers through her blinds, goes through her neighbors’ garbage, listens in on telephone conversations. The more active, interesting examples you can sprinkle through your plot, the better. Here’s a challenge for you: write down a list of the 3 adjectives that you think describe your protagonist or antagonist. Then go back through the scenes you’ve written and make sure those words never appear. Find other ways to reveal those character traits. Now you’re showing!

4. Trust your reader. When you create a scene, don’t give in to the urge to tell us how the characters are feeling. Show us instead, through their words and thoughts and actions.

5. Finally, consider using animals/pets to reveal something about your characters’ personalities. I won’t go into it on this post, but I wrote an article on this technique that you can access here. I’ve found that using animals in my storylines, no matter how briefly, can do wonders to show us something about the characters and move away from the boring habit of telling.

Sometimes it’s tough to get used to showing rather than telling in your writing, but once you get the hang of it, your work will come to life.

Allie Boniface Author of ONE NIGHT IN BOSTON


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